April 23, 2014

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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.

Comments

  1. cm says:

    Not to profess expertise, but many foods/substances are known to modify taste perception of specific other foods, although often rather subtly. That’s why in almost all cuisines courses are carefully matched and sequenced, and matched with appropriate side dishes and drinks. I have often noticed this accidentally, perhaps I should pay more attention and log my experiences to enhance my culinary experience and cut out all those unhealthy snacks I consume for temporary gratification.

  2. CNH says:

    1. Synsepalum dulcificum or Richadella dulcifica, West Africa, soil of pH 4.5 – 5.8, free from frost and in partial shade with high humidity. 8-10 years to bear fruit, 2 crops per year after the rainy season.
    2. Theerasilp, S and Kurihara, Y (1988) Journal of Biological Chemistry 263, 11536-11539
    3. Miraculin.
    4. Miraculin binds to a site near the sweet receptor. When sour substances then are tasted, a conformational change in the taste cell membrane occurs in such a way as to bring the miraculin molecule into contact with the sweet receptor, activating it.
    5-8. Entirely safe. It has been consumed for thousands of years in its native country without any of the rather colourful effects you describe.

  3. Ed Felten says:

    Anonymous,

    Chill out. It’s a fruit, for God’s sake.

    Of course we did our homework before we ingested the stuff. It’s legal and safe.

  4. Crosbie Fitch says:

    This is the sort of thing that gets you kicked out of the garden of Eden, you know…

    I wonder if it enhances capsaicin?

  5. Jim says:

    Very nice.

    But what about the “yuchy” vegetables that kids and most adults hate? Would it make cabbage or brussel sprouts sweet? That would be more miraculous than citrus which is already sweet.

  6. Jeremy Jacobs says:

    How about a powder that makes broccoli taste like chocolate?

  7. cm says:

    Jim: When the point is making things sweet, there are those miracle substances called sugar and honey. (As in “honey glazed ham”.)

  8. dsn says:

    Actually, science is a process of formulating a testable hypothesis, testing it, and reporting the results. What you’re asking for is for formal science, which is a structure that goes above the core work of science. And besides, you left out the most important scientific question
    0. Who is willing to provide sufficient grant money to continue this research?

  9. Neo says:

    Sugar won’t make brussels sprouts palatable. Something that gums up the bitter taste receptors might. My recommendation is that if you absolutely must consume cruciform vegetables, get them powdered in gelcap form somehow. That way they get digested normally, but not tasted, and unlike taking the usual multivitamins you’ll get anything beneficial in the vegetables that chemists haven’t identified, as well as the things they have.

  10. WillyWonka says:

    Anonymous,

    You put the “bore” in “science”!

    (Yes, I know there is no “bore” in “science”, but sometimes you need to break the rules).

  11. Isaac says:

    See also cynarin from artichokes.

    http://rhosgobel.blogspot.com/2007_01_01_archive.html

  12. John Doe says:

    So, where did you guys purchase it from? Only available from shady online dealers?

  13. Andy Fischer says:

    I have been interested in this stuff for a while where did you order it from? I have seen some places to get it but I wanted to order it from someone who had success and wasn’t overly hassled/unhappy with the order.

    I also know that a similar effect that everyone might be more familiar with is the ability of mint to mask sweet flavors (quite the opposite of the miraculin). This is why orange juice tastes so bad after mint gum chewing.

  14. Neil says:

    Could be an interesting ingredient to use instead of salt around the rim of a margarita glass, no?

    Very interesting post, thank you.

  15. AbleFable says:

    Can this be a sugar substitute?
    Sugar = dibetes, obesity… huge cost to society…
    I can see it now. Try new miraculin coke!

  16. Guy says:

    That… is awesome! I’m all about trying new foods and such, and while not technically a food in my book, is pretty cool and worth a try. I’m going to attempt to obtain some of this stuff. Lots of tests will be conducted, and I’ll post my findings back on this blog. Thanks for conducting the test!

  17. AST says:

    But can we use it as an alternative to petroleum.

    Now THAT would be a miracle.

    • J. Deppeler says:

      Neither the fruit, nor other methods that have been used to produce mass quantities of this chemical even come close to being efficient enough to fuel cars with, even if that were possible. You’d still be looking a mighty expensive fill-ups, as this would surely cost many, many times as much per gallon as gasoline ever has.

      The truth is, if you strip out the subsidies and mandates, ethanol is also less efficient than gasoline too.

      And the idea of using up arable land growing fuel, instead of food, is ridiculous anyway, when we can use up considerably less land using things like oil, coal, and nuclear energy. That way, our energy preferences won’t necessarily starve people in poor countries by driving up the price of food–which is what ethanol mandates have actually done.

      But I guess you weren’t really expecting a serious answer.

  18. Janette says:

    Fascinating stuff! Thank you for your selfless sacrifice in the interest of scientific research.

    Wikipedia notes that it’s been suggested that Miraculin actually changes the structure of the taste bud. Would be an interesting complication to wine pairing for a meal that bends your tastebuds!

  19. Cherrie says:

    Not sure if it’s the same substance (but looks the same and has a similar effect – from my personal observations), but sometimes they serve it (in say, a salt shaker type thing) at restaurants in HK when they bring out citrus (or melon type) fruits after dinner.

    I wonder if it’s the same… must find chinese name…

  20. Curious2 says:

    Turns out it is not so hard to find. Just check with your local nursery and ask around. I found the plants available in Houston for $35 each. I am told they are ready to bear fruit in the next couple of weeks. While we all may be excited about it, garden centers are way ahead of us. No need to check with customs professor… you probably could have gotten some down the street.

  21. Oen says:

    Neo,

    What makes you think science can gelcap vegetables in a way that will keep “the good stuff” they “haven’t identified” available?

  22. Rowan says:

    Yeah, my aunt lives in Mareeba in North Queensland (Australia) and has the actual fruit tree growing in her garden.

    We often eat the fruit (very small and is mostly seed) and then eat kumquats, makes them taste great.

    Never had it in the powdered form, one little fruit is usually enough.

  23. another anonymous says:

    (Boy! ‘Anonymous’ got out of the wrong side of the bed!) A major problem in our society today is misunderstanding of science. Anonymous pushes that to new heights. Science is the Scientific Method – 1. Hypothesize. 2. Test. 3. Evaluate results. Nowhere in the scientific method is there information about taxonomic groupings or weenies falling off….. Interesting to see that the sourc tastes seemed apparent but muted or somehow altered. A very difficult topic since taste (like smell) can be quite variable among different individuals…

  24. raghibsuleman says:

    “Miraculin” i know this is African fruit
    but this Taste i didn’t like…………………….

  25. Neantaeus says:

    Anonymous needs a colonoscopy -yesterday. He is correct about the misuse of the concept of science but jesh, this is a blog for goodness sake.

    Tell you what, if Quaaludes ever become over the counter, I’m sending him a coupon.

  26. Joel Rosenbaum says:

    I would wager that miraculin (the active compound in miracle fruit) is an ion channel or signal transduction inhibitor. By blocking your sense of sourness (based on acidity in food), your other gustatory senses are enhanced. That would also explain why your reaction to other (non sour) foods are unaffected.

    A counterexample of this would be monosodium glutamate, a glutamate agonist for the umami (G-coupled) receptors that convey your sense of “savoriness” as in meat and mushrooms.

  27. Malka Ashkenazi says:

    How/ where can I purchase this powder??

  28. bobby runyon says:

    I am on dialysis. Will miraculin enhance my taste buds?

  29. Steve Curtis says:

    Very cool article. I have done a few experiments with this plant in food over the years. Lots of interesting review work up on pubmed if anyone is curious. Anyone have any ideas on blocking bitter? I work for a large consumer products firm which is on the hunt. Did anyone ask for research money? Email me at my personal address with any ideas zerotoabillion@gmail.com

  30. jimi says:

    Let’s all keep in mind that miraculin does come from a berry, and although this test is good at showing that the dehydrated fruit can contain some of the berries’ properties, it is well documented that miraculin isn’t easily/effectively stored. The best results come from eating the berry itself, and there are plenty of folks in Florida that ship them – usually around $50 for 15 berries. The expense is really from the shipping, not from the product itself.

  31. Kudzu Fire says:

    it was cool. you were a very cool guinea pig!

  32. Miracle Fruit Site says:

    Hi,

    We’re actually getting our own Miracle tabs made in the US, as well as melt on your tingue strips. We’ve also signed a contract with a grower in Ghana for regular shipment of fresh soft dreid berries.

    If anyone is interested in bulk orders, please contact me.

    Kind regards,

    Simon Kirby

  33. Jayson Walker says:

    Amazing that people will freak out so much over things like this when we hypnotists help people alter their sense perceptions everyday. For example, for the morbidly obese, making sweet items unpleasantly sour – or items with excessive fat content with an unpleasant aftertaste.. likewise, making healthy items taste delicious, and even replacing candy with vegetables

  34. Anonymous says:

    To those who would like to Purchase Miracle berrys…try http://www.thinkgeek.com . They got a 20 serving pack for about 17$.

  35. Anonymous says:

    If any one on here has been to the website Thinkgeek.com, they sell miraculin as little tablets rather than the actual fruit, and it’s not too expensive either. They have plenty of other items as well, from just plain funny stuff to stuff you never thought existed. One thing though is that if you don’t understand programming, or physics or the like, (i.e. you aren’t a “geek” like me) then you may not get some of the jokes on the site and their merchandise, but the various high tech toys they have on there are usually pretty easy to understand and really cool. Here’s a direct link to the tablets if that’s all you care about. http://www.thinkgeek.com/caffeine/candy/ab3f/?cpg=ab

    • Anonymous says:

      Sorry about the re-post. Didn’t see the post a couple of lines up. my bad. Thinkgeek does have great products anyways.

  36. Anonymous says:

    The chemical’s actual name is miraculin. It’s a protein. And you’re a pompous gasbag. Maybe this guy isn’t a professional researcher documenting every single detail to your liking, but he did an experiment and recorded some results. There’s something scientific in that, even if it doesn’t make it up to your exacting standards–which, no doubt, you only apply to other people, not yourself.

  37. Angel says:

    I tried miracle fruit for the first time last summer. I tried lemons, grapefruit, kiwis and hot sauce. It absolutely ruined wine and beer for me. Unless you love cheap wine, go for it. I’d love to check out the miracle fruit cafes they have in Japan. Basically, they cook sour or unsweetened desserts to be eaten in conjunction with the miracle fruit…then wham! Great-tasting food with way fewer calories and sugar.