September 19, 2017

Miracle Fruit: Tinkering with our Taste Buds

Miraculin, the extract of a West African fruit, is said to make sour foods taste sweet. It’s not sugary, but it’s said to trick your taste buds into misreporting the flavor of the food you’re eating. One of my students, Bill Zeller, bought some miraculin and a group of us tried it out. Here, in the interest of science, is my report.

Miraculin is a lumpy powder, dull red in color, that results from freeze-drying the flesh of the so-called miracle fruit. Here’s about twenty-five grams of miraculin, with a lime for size comparison.

Bill bought fifty grams of miraculin, which came by mail from Ghana. Both Ghana and the U.S. required customs paperwork before the fruit-based product could be shipped. Here’s the Republic of Ghana export permit.

I took a lump of miraculin, weighing a gram or two, and carefully ate it, pushing it around on my tongue as it dissolved.

It didn’t have much taste, and the texture was a bit gummy. Once it was all dissolved I waited a minute or so for the effect to kick in. The effect is said to wear off after about twenty minutes, so it was time for the taste test to begin.

As predicted, the miraculin made sour things taste sweet. Lemon wedges tasted like sweet lemonade. Lime wedges were sweet too. I could still sense the acidity of the fruit, and there was a detectable sour taste but it seemed to be covered over with a pleasant citrus sweetness. I could have eaten whole lemons or limes with no problem.

The grapefruit was stunning, perhaps the best-tasting fruit I have ever eaten. The ones we had were pretty sweet already as grapefruit go, but with miraculin they were distinctly but not overly sweet, and the underlying grapefruit flavor came through beautifully. I had to stop myself from wolfing down several grapefruit.

After the fruit I tried some other foods that were handy. Pizza tasted about the same as usual, though the tomato sauce had a slightly sweet tinge. Diet Dr. Pepper tasted normal. I tried some Indian food – samosas and curried chickpeas – and found the flavor unchanged except that the spiciness was intensified. The normally mild potato-based samosa filling had a spicy kick. Miraculin did nothing for a sweet dessert.

My verdict on miraculin? It’s pleasant and I’m glad I tried it, but it’s not a life-changing experience. I can imagine it becoming popular. It makes some healthy foods taste better, and it’s not too expensive. The amount I had would cost less than a dollar today if you bought in bulk, and there must be unexploited economies of scale.

Thanks to Bill Zeller for getting the miraculin,

to my co-investigators,

and Alex Halderman for taking the photos.