I first heard about the mysterious and fanciful Miracle Fruit about ten years ago when I was researching the possibility of becoming an ethnobotanist and exploring the field. That ethnobotany, the study of the relations between plants and people, could encompass plants from the mundane potato to the obscure and strange, such as the miracle fruit, was a very exciting prospect, and I decided to end my 7-year stint as a computer-graphics programmer in Silicon Valley to start a Ph.D. in ethnobotany at City University of New York, researching medicinal plants of Peru and Mali. I had to wait several years before I finally tasted the miracle fruit I had been seeking and feel its strange effects, but when I did, it lived up to its miraculous reputation.
In South Florida taking a botany course to learn about all the wonderful tropical plants I had never known growing up in New York’s urban jungle, I spotted a miracle fruit bush at the must-visit Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead, and plucked a few of the bright-red, grape-sized berries to play with. Back at home, I spread out all the strange foods I was told to try with miracle fruit: lemons, limes, grapefruit, balsamic vinegar, wine, and tamarind. I carefully popped a miracle fruit into my mouth and swished the delicate translucent flesh around my mouth, making sure to cover every last part of my tongue.
The fruit had a very mild sour taste a bit like a grape at first, but this taste was subtly changing as it lingered in my mouth in a very interesting way. But the taste of the miracle fruit itself was not what I was seeking; it was what happened after I swallowed the fruit and slowly took a taste of the lemon wedge I had prepared. This lemon I knew was very sour and puckering when I tasted it before, but now it was amazing! It tasted like the sweetest honey mandarin orange I had ever tasted. My initial tentative tastes of the lemon turned to excited devouring of the now intoxicatingly sweet transformed fruit.
Once I had polished off the lemon, I turned to the lime, which I normally prefer over lemons, adding intense flavor on top of the lemon’s sourness. The lime was even more delectable and could be eaten straight in one gulp. The grapefruit, which is normally one of the few fruits I dislike, now tasted sweet and juicy, as if bathed in honey. The most acidic of all the fruits I had assembled, the tamarind used for puckering Mexican tamarindo drinks and Southeast Asian curries and chutneys, now tasted like the sweetest tangy raisin.
Moving on from the sour fruits, I then tried the other acidic foods. The balsamic vinegar had transformed to something akin to port wine or a rich balsamic reduction and the red wine tasted like a sweet, rich dessert wine, without the syrupy texture. The miracle fruit had truly lived up to its reputation of turning everything sour into something sweet, and many of the other flavors were subsequently enhanced, making me want to taste any other sour food or drink I could find.
The miracle fruit is not some recent genetically engineered creation, but rather a food with a long tradition in tropical West African countries of Ghana, Congo and Cameroon where it is called agbayunin Yoruba and used to sweeten the sour porridge, bread, and palm wine that is the staple there. Without a taste of the miracle fruit beforehand these fermented foods would be wholly unpalatable.
The fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum syn Richardella dulcifica in the Chicle or Shea butter family, Sapotaceae) was found in the 1960s to contain a large glycoprotein as its active component, dubbed miraculin. How this protein turns sour sweet on the tongue is not completely understood, but it is thought to distort the lock-and-key shape of the sweet receptor in such a way that it then responds to acids instead of saccharides, so any sour acid now sends sweet signals to the brain. Since the active compound is a protein, it unfortunately cannot be preserved by heat since this would denature the protein, as all cooking does, and destroy its receptor-deforming properties. Therefore, the fruit can only be used fresh or in a freeze-dried form.
After a few failed attempts, miracle fruit was eventually brought to the states from Africa in 1952 by way of Panama by the famous tropical fruit breeder William Whitman. A fruit grower in Panama had played a trick on Whitman by telling him the miracle fruit was merely a nondescript African fruit with unremarkable properties, but then gave Whitman a taste of a lime he said he had bred to be incredibly sweet that amazed Whitman. When the grower revealed that it was the miracle fruit creating the, well, miraculous taste of the lime, Whitman was hooked and brought it back to Florida immediately and luckily planted it in acidic soil where it thrived. Others had failed by planting it in more common alkali limestone soil.
All humans and birds who came in contact with these introduced miracle fruit bushes loved it and spread it quickly around the tropical parts of Florida, till eventually in the early 1970s it fell into the lap of three men, Lloyd Biedler (a biophysicist of taste), Robert J. Harvey (a biomedical engineering PhD student), and Howard Dennis (an expert gardener and plant breeder), who thought that it would make a great, natural, calorie-free sweetener to replace the then dominant saccharin and emerging aspartame artificial sweeteners. They started a company called Miralin that almost succeeded in getting FDA approval for using miraculin as a food additive and sweetener, bred a high-miraculin variety of the miracle fruit, and planted large orchards of the fruit in Homestead, Florida.
One problem is that the miraculin cannot be merely mixed with a sour, unsweetened food since the first taste of these will be very sour. Rather, the miraculin has to be spread around the tongue for thirty to sixty seconds, and then the sour food tastes sweet. However, Miralin had also succeeded in developing several ingenious food products that worked with the delayed effects of miracle fruit, such as a popsicle with an unsweetened center coated with a layer of the frozen miracle fruit that takes long enough to lick through for it to take effect. They also created a soda can with a little straw containing the miraculin that would pop out when one opened the soda to be drunk first, turning the sour unsweetened soda inside pleasantly sweet.
The amazing thing is that in the world of sickly sweet and lingering artificial sweeteners, when market tested, people generally preferred the miracle fruit versions of these foods over the true sugar versions, which is unheard of with sugar replacements. This, along with a popular sugar-replacement product for diabetics, made it seem that Miralin was on track to have a hugely successful product, until the corporate espionage started.
As word started to get out about Miralin’s successes and as they started to push the FDA to get approval for miraculin as a food additive via the Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) standard where foods that have a history of safe human use can get FDA approval without much testing, sugar companies and artificial sweetener companies, like those of the burgeoning aspartame industry, started to take notice of the threat of Miralin.
Miralin employees started noticing strange cars following them home, people photographing their offices, nasty “anonymous” articles on the safety of their product and company in a newspaper in Jamaica where they had many farms, and a professional break-in to their office where many of their files were stolen. They could not prove that this corporate espionage was done by the sugar or artificial sweetener industry or that this led to the FDA denying their approval. However, the FDA denial letter did arrive within a few weeks of these suspicious events and the denial was not based on any scientific evidence of danger but rather on a perplexing concern that, after eating miraculin, children would take a liking to inorganic acids like battery acid.
This completely non-standard procedure from the FDA made it seem like competing sweetener groups had leaned on the FDA to squelch the promising miracle fruit. This crippling setback sent Miralin spiraling rapidly towards bankruptcy and most of their innovative products and technology were sadly sold off. The founders all eventually recovered their losses and were successful in other fields, but the US missed out on a simple traditional food that might have significantly helped stave off today’s diabetes and obesity epidemics.
Miracle fruit went underground in the states for about 30 years while it was developed extensively in Japan where one can easily buy freeze-dried miracle fruit tablets and they do not have an apparent scourge of battery-acid-addicted children. A recent resurgence of interest in the US has enabled one to buy fresh fruit from Curtis Mozie farms in Ft. Lauderdale, FL and freeze-dried powder from Bioresources International in New Jersey, a company that imports many African medicinal plants. Due to this renewed interest and a recent press, many people have asked me to throw miracle-fruit tasting parties, something I gladly do since seeing people’s eyes light up with delight the first time they taste a candy-sweet lemon is so gratifying.
Little did I know when I started my new career in ethnobotany that this traditional African food would lead me through an international business, corporate espionage, biochemistry, and modern food fads, but it has been a constantly edifying journey. I suggest everyone get their hands on some miracle fruit, have their taste buds turned inside out, and taste a little of what ethnobotany has to offer.