The taste­bud-chang­ing pow­ers of mir­a­cle berry


Good Health Choices - - Be Content -

It’s a bright red berry, shaped like a jelly­bean. When you first pop it in your mouth, you’ll won­der what all the fuss is about. But eat it with some­thing sour or bit­ter and you’ll see how this lit­tle West African ‘mir­a­cle’ fruit has earned its name.

Each berry con­tains an un­usual pro­tein that tricks the taste buds lin­ing the tongue. So foods that usu­ally taste sour, bit­ter or savoury sud­denly taste sweet and this taste-al­ter­ing ef­fect lasts for up to two hours.

The mir­a­cle berry, or Synsepa­lum dul­ci­fi­cum, grows in trop­i­cal ar­eas of West Africa on bushes that can reach just over five me­tres tall. When ripe, the berries are around 3cm long.

The key in­gre­di­ent is mira­c­ulin, the pro­tein that pro­duces the in­ter­est­ing taste-switch­ing ef­fect. Mira­c­ulin was first iden­ti­fied by sci­en­tists in 1968, al­though lo­cals in West Africa have munched on these berries for cen­turies – usu­ally be­fore meals to make their food more palat­able.

The first Euro­pean records show mir­a­cle berries were doc­u­mented in

1725 by Rey­naud Des Mar­chais, a French ex­plorer who tried the berries for him­self when he be­came cu­ri­ous as to why African peo­ple ate the berries be­fore eat­ing dull and poor-tast­ing meals. He re­alised the berries took away the bland­ness and made meals much tastier than they re­ally were.

More re­cently, sci­en­tists and nutri­tion­ists have started in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ter­est­ing health-giv­ing po­ten­tial of mir­a­cle berries. Some be­lieve it could help tackle the Western world’s obe­sity epi­demic by be­ing used as a low-calo­rie sugar sub­sti­tute added to foods like cakes, bis­cuits and desserts.

So how do they work?

The hu­man tongue has about 10,000 taste buds that sit in the ep­ithe­lium or sur­face layer of the tongue. Each bud is topped by a taste pore, like the skin pores on our face or body. Deeper in the tongue, each taste bud con­tains about 50 to 75 taste re­cep­tor cells.

When you eat, chem­i­cals from food in­ter­act with the taste pore and the taste re­cep­tor cells. Those cells are con­nected to a sys­tem of nerve cells that com­mu­ni­cate and pass in­for­ma­tion to the brain, so we then iden­tify foods as sour or sweet, for ex­am­ple.

Mir­a­cle berries weave their magic in our mouth when mira­c­ulin sticks to taste re­cep­tor cells and changes how they work. They heighten the in­ten­sity of the tongue’s sweet taste re­cep­tors and also change the shape of the re­cep­tor cells, over­whelm­ing them with sweet­ness so that even acidic and sour foods reg­is­ter in our brain as sweet. So suck­ing on a lemon pro­duces the same taste sen­sa­tion as suck­ing on a lolly.

In the US, mir­a­cle berries have be­come part of ‘flavour trip­ping’ par­ties where guests eat the fruit and then sam­ple a range of sour and acidic foods that all end up tast­ing sickly sweet.

But in the lab­o­ra­tory and kitchen, food ex­perts and sci­en­tists are try­ing to work out how they can use mir­a­cle berries – in fresh or pow­dered form – to im­prove our health and our waist­lines. For ex­am­ple, eat­ing berries be­fore eat­ing a sugar-free dessert would give us the en­joy­ment of eat­ing a sweet treat with­out the kilo­joules.

How­ever, at the mo­ment re­searchers have not worked out how to stop mira­c­ulin los­ing its taste-switch­ing prop­er­ties when it is re­frig­er­ated or heated.

An­other po­ten­tial ob­sta­cle is that mir­a­cle berries are ex­pen­sive. Mir­a­cle berry tablets are avail­able on­line and cost around $30 for 10 tablets. A kilo of freeze-dried mir­a­cle berry pow­der from the US costs around $3100 – about half the cost of Bel­uga caviar. The high price is due to mir­a­cle berries be­ing hard to grow, and re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Tokyo are cur­rently ex­plor­ing how to cul­ti­vate the berries faster and more widely, to make them more af­ford­able.

But the po­ten­tial health ben­e­fits keep re­searchers com­mit­ted to find­ing out more about how to make the most of mir­a­cle berries.

An­other promis­ing op­por­tu­nity could be for cancer pa­tients un­der­go­ing the rigours of chemo­ther­apy. An un­pleas­ant side ef­fect of treat­ment can be a nasty metal­lic af­ter­taste and it may be that the mir­a­cle berry can com­bat this and re­turn a sweeter, pleas­ant flavour to the mouth.

Re­searchers be­lieve the fruit also has the po­ten­tial to help peo­ple with di­a­betes to bet­ter con­trol sugar in­take by pro­vid­ing a sweet hit with­out the harm­ful sugar.

With more than 200,000 New Zealan­ders – and count­ing – di­ag­nosed with di­a­betes, and com­pli­ca­tions of the ill­ness in­clud­ing blind­ness and am­pu­ta­tion, find­ing a berry that might re­duce the num­ber of those liv­ing with di­a­betes re­ally would be a mir­a­cle.

Some be­lieve the berry could help tackle the obe­sity


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