Miracle fruit study reveals secret of flavor-shifting berry

Wikimedia Commons
miracle fruit
Wikimedia Commons

(CBS) They call it miracle fruit - and for good reason. The West African berry makes sour foods taste incredibly sweet.

The effect is so fun that some people throw "miracle fruit parties" to test the fruits firsthand.

Never tried miracle fruit? Just pop the red, cranberry-sized berry in your mouth and chew it awhile to release the berry's juices. Then grab something sour like a lemon or a shot of vinegar and sure enough, it will taste sweet.

The fruit "Is just a miracle or a kind of magic," Dr. Keiko Abe, a food scientist from the University of Tokyo, told Discovery News. "Beer tastes like sweet juice. Lemon tastes like sweet orange."

Now a new study by Dr. Abe and her colleagues - published in the September 26 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - seems to have unlocked the flavor-altering secrets behind this berry.

How does it work?

Miracle fruit - known in scientific circles as Synsepalum dulcificum - contains a protein called miraculin. The protein itself is "flat in taste," according to Abe, so if you just eat a berry it may not taste like much. But miraculin attaches itself to taste buds that sense sweetness, and once a sour food enters the picture it appears to alter the mouth's chemistry to kick the sweet taste bud receptors into overdrive.

Strangely, miraculin makes aspartame or sugar-sweetened foods taste bland - and the effect can last for hours.

Abe thinks the protein could be the basis of a calorie-free sweetener for obese people, and patients with diabetes, she told Nature News.

But don't look for a miraculin sweetener on shelves anytime soon. BBC news reported that the FDA banned its use as an additive sweetener in the 1970's. Consumers can still order miracle fruit plants, seeds, or tablets online to try for themselves.