Tricking your taste buds: How one fruit causes sour food to taste sweet

BY: BRIAN NYAKUNDI

Imagine the initial unpleasant and jarring sour taste that comes from biting into a lime. Now imagine biting into the same lime and instead of tasting a disgusting sourness, you now experience an explosion of pleasing sweetness. Believe it or not, there exists an easy way to make this possible. Mberry Miracle Fruit tablets are a product on the market that can dissolve on your tongue, tricking your taste buds into making sour foods taste sweet [7].

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The tablet is made from a small bright red fruit known as miracle fruit or Synsepalum dulcificum, which is a fruit native to Ghana [8]. The fruit itself is bland in taste and is not inherently sweet, however, when eaten it has the uncanny ability to make bitter and sour foods taste sweet. With one tablet, you can bite into a granny smith apple like it was candy or drink a glass of lime juice as if it was Kool-Aid. While this may sound like black magic or sorcery; you are probably thinking, “How can this possibly happen?”

Well let’s find out more about how this little berry works!

Miracle fruit contains a protein called miraculin which acts as a sweetness stimulus. To understand how this protein works, we must first understand how our tongue works. The tongue is covered with numerous taste buds (Lingual Papillae). Each taste bud contains molecular receptors that translate certain food compounds into electrical signals that tell our brain what we are tasting [5]. These receptors are specially shaped proteins that bind to certain food molecules and help us recognize the five basic taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. When you suck on a miracle fruit tablet, the miraculin protein in the miracle fruit binds directly to the sweet receptors on your tongue. Normally through this process and at the neutral pH (pH 7) found in your mouth, miraculin represses the sweet receptors, which prevents you from experiencing the taste sensation of sweetness [5]. However, under acidic conditions from sour foods, miraculin does the opposite – it actually intensifies your sweet receptors and makes them extra sensitive to sweetness-triggering molecules. The pH drop caused by eating sour foods changes miraculin’s molecular shape [1]. In doing so, it also changes the shape of the sweet receptors miraculin is bound to, causing a sensation of excessive sweetness which overpowers the sour taste. Not only does miracle fruit have the power to turn sour foods sweet, but it also intensifies the sweet taste naturally present in foods. Fear not – while miracle fruit does change your experience of taste, the effect usually lasts only about one hour (but can range from 30 minutes to 2 hours) before getting washed away by saliva [8].

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While most people use miracle fruit for recreational purposes, it has been used for centuries throughout West Africa to enhance the flavor of food [6,9]. In the 1700s European explorers traveling in West Africa learned about miracle fruit after seeing the native West African chew it before consuming food that was overly sour to make it more appetizing [3,6]. However, it wasn’t until 1852 that the miracle berry first appeared in literature and did not appear in the US until the 1970s. In the 1970s, Miralin, an American company tried to develop miraculin (the protein found in miracle fruit) as a low-calorie sweetener. However, before they could take their product to market the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified miraculin as a food additive, subjecting it to years of further testing [4]. At the same time that Miralin was preparing to release miracle fruit into market, aspartame (an artificial sweetener) was being approved by the FDA. The FDA commissioner that pushed to label miracle fruit as an additive and approve aspartame was later accused of accepting corporate bribes. Conspiracy theorists believe that this ruling was influenced by the sugar industry to prevent loss of revenue [4].

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Miracle fruit also has potential benefits for cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy usually suffer from a loss of appetite due to the metallic and bland taste food acquires after treatments due to the metal-containing drugs used in cancer treatments. Miracle fruit can mask this overwhelming metallic taste, allowing cancer patients to enjoy a simple meal. Additionally, miracle fruit has also been shown to help diabetes patients with insulin resistance. The fruit can improve insulin sensitivity in diabetes patients, naturally helping them reduce their sugar intake without having to giving up their favorite foods, drinks or dessert [2]. There is even a recipe book if you want to include miracle fruit in your food to help reduce calories and sugar intake.

While miracle fruit may have some therapeutic reasons for its use, there is only one reason YOU need to taste it – flipping your world of taste upside down! Get yourself some tablets, your family and friends, and let the journey down flavor tripping lane begin!

References
[1] Ayako Koizumi AT, Ken-ichiro Nakajima, Keisuke Ito, Tohru, Terada AS-I, Loïc Briand, Tomiko Asakura, Takumi, Abe MaK. 2011. Human sweet taste receptor mediates acid-induced sweetness of miraculin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(40):16819-24.
[2] Chen C-C, Lui I-M, Cheng J-T. 2006. Improvement of insulin resistance by miracle fruit (synsepalum dulcificum) in fructose-rich chow-fed rats. Phytotherapy Research 20(11):987-92.
[3] Fooladi E. 2012. Facts about miracle fruit (miraculin revisited – part 2:2)online](http://www.fooducation.org/2012/09/facts-about-miracle-fruit-miraculin.html#commercial_use).
[4] Gollner A. 2008. The Fruit Hunters: Author Adam Leith Gollner on the Politics of Fruit and the Secret History of the “Miracle Berry”. Democracy Now.
[5] How does our senses of taste work? : PubMed Health; 2016 Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072592/.
[6] Lipatova O, Campolattaro M. 2016. The Miracle Fruit: A Undergraduate Laboratory Exercise    in Taste Sensation and Perception. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education 15(1):A56-A60.
[7] Miracle Berry History. My Fruit, LLc d.b.a; 2012 [Accessed 2017  Available from: http://mberry.us/.
[8] Miracle Fruit. California: California Rare
Fruit Growers, Inc.; 1996 Available from: https://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/miraclefruit.html.
[9] Synsepalum dulcificum: Everyday Miracle – Glow the Dream!: Top Tropicals LLc [Accessed 2017 November] Available from: https://toptropicals.com/html/toptropicals/plant_wk/synsepalum.htm.

 

This guest post was written by Brian Nyakundi. Brian completed his bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota, Morris and is currently a M.S. in Food Science student at Chapman University. His current research focuses on how irradiation effects granny smith apples at the molecular level, specifically looking at RNA expression of specific genes in the 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid (ACC) Oxidase pathway. Brian is a HUGE Minnesota Vikings (Go Vikes 🏈) and Roger Federer fan! In his spare time, he enjoys exploring all California has to offer from the beautiful hiking trails to all the fantastic food options

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