Museum Blog

Miracle Fruit: West Africa's Secret Berry

Posted 8/4/2011 12:08 AM by Nicole Garneau | Comments

Some of my fondest scientific discussions in graduate school occurred while eating lunch with fellow students and post-docs.  Here we would hash out problems, discuss hypotheses, and defend the merits of our research.  For me, pairing food and scientific discourse is a natural, welcomed event.  That is why I was over-the-top excited at the idea of performing a scientific experiment which involved consuming food and bedeviling my sense of taste. 


Miracle Fruit, a plant indigenous to West Africa, finally made its way to Lab Central here in Expedition Health.  Chef Ian Kleinman of The Inventing Room, walked into the lab well equipped to provide our sense of taste with a new experience.  His cooler was jam-packed with ice and buried in the depths were these lovely, small, red berries called Miracle Fruit.  He also brought with him grapefruit, pickle juice, lemons, limes, strawberries, tea, and pickle juice.  Chef Kleinman came to the museum to provide the staff at lab central with our first foray into "flavor tripping"! 

Miracle fruit contains a substance called miraculin and this protein makes sour or acidic things taste sweet.  We first ingested the berries and then began to eat the buffet of sour food; it was a fantastically interesting and fun experience.  We literally closed our eyes with delight at the sweetness of lemons, limes, and grapefruits - all without a hint of the expected sourness. We had never tasted strawberries or pickle juice so sweet.


 As we sat in the laboratory delighting in the wonderful tastes of lemons and limes, we noticed one of our youngest volunteers eyeing us incredulously.  "Are you eating lemons?" Annie queried with slight hesitation.  We shared with Annie the secret of our enjoyment... Miracle Fruit, which she happily tried (with permission from her mother)!  Did Annie enjoy the sour fruit?  Look at the photos below and you can see why she asked for seconds!  Importantly, the effects of Miracle Fruit are reversible and the sour taste of the fruit returned within 40 minutes of tasting the berries. 

How can eating a Miracle Fruit, make sour and acidic foods, taste sweet?  Scientists have a few ideas, but more research needs to be performed.  It is postulated that miraculin interacts with the sweet receptor on the tongue and that acidic foods play an important role in miraculin activation. Scientists are especially intrigued by the possibility that miraculin could play a role as an alternative sweetener.  












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