A first experience with the uncanny, taste-changing berry called "miracle fruit" can feel like an experiment crossed with an initiation rite. It typically begins by setting a table with plates of sliced lemons and other fruit, bowls of creams and jellies, samples of raw and packaged foods. The cranberry-colored, almond-shaped miracle fruit itself — or its small, aspirin-shaped pill version — is then distributed one-by-one to the people assembled for the tasting, while whoever supplies them gives advisories about the fruit's expected effect and its duration. Running through all these preliminaries, though, is the anticipation — and sometimes skepticism — regarding what is about to happen.
"This will change fruit as you know it forever," says David Lamouranne, a New Orleans distributor of miracle fruit tablets, as he dispenses his product to a small group of people about to try it for the first time.
When using actual miracle fruit — the berry of the tree known as Synsepalum dulcificum — people swirl the pulp of the small fruit around in their mouths. Using the pill, they simply let the tablet dissolve on the tongue, releasing its extract. The fruit tastes a little sweet, while the pill tastes like an ordinary vitamin, and there's no change in mouthfeel at all.
But once miracle fruit has worked its chemical magic on the taste buds, a raw slice of lemon will taste as sweet as candy. Foods that should be harshly sour or tart — limes, rhubarb — will taste like sugary desserts. Less intense sour flavors are also transformed, so sour cream tastes like whipped cream and dark Guinness stout tastes like a chocolate-flavored drink.
Savory flavors are barely affected at all. Bread still tastes like bread, potato chips like potato chips. But for acidic, sour and bitter foods, the transformation is startling and sensational. Holding foods that are icons of sour flavor, smelling their familiar and unchanged scent, and then biting in to discover the very inverse of the expected flavor is better experienced than explained. Miracle fruit's influence diminishes in a span of time ranging from 15 minutes to an hour, after which taste perceptions return to normal. This dramatic effect is due to a glycoprotein called miraculin that naturally occurs in miracle fruit and is contained in extract form in miracle fruit tablets, which are shelf-stable.
Miraculin essentially binds itself to the surface of the tongue and makes sweet receptors on the taste buds respond to acids, thus causing sour flavors to register as sweet, says Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste. She published the first research on miraculin's effect on humans in 1969, and she continues to study it today.
"The entire effect is incredibly simple. It just adds a sweet taste wherever acid is found," Bartoshuk says. She says there are no known negative side effects from miracle fruit.
No other known protein produces the same effect as miraculin, she says, although other plants can have similarly powerful influences over the human palate. For instance, an herb found in India called Gymnema sylvestre suppresses sweet flavors altogether, she says, making a spoonful of sugar taste like sand.
Miracle fruit is sold widely online, and now it is available directly in New Orleans. Lamouranne, an entrepreneurial 27-year-old New Orleans native who also runs an energy efficiency firm called GreenStar Coatings, began distributing the pill form of miracle fruit this spring through stores like the Herb Import Co. Packaged under the brand name Miracle Frooties, the pills are produced by a Taiwanese pharmaceutical firm called Genovate Biotechnology, and they are handled locally by Lamouranne and business partner Jude Cockfield, who do business as Miracle Fruit Health.
The miracle fruit experience makes a nifty parlor trick, and it has inspired social group tastings, often dubbed "flavor-tripping parties," where guests sample their way through transformed food flavors. Flavor-tripping videos posted to YouTube by media outlets and individuals alike portray miracle fruit tastings as mysterious, giddy forays, adding to the pop buzz building around the experience.
But Lamouranne and Cockfield eschew this part of the miracle fruit allure, preferring to focus on what they believe are potential medical and health benefits they say outweigh the novelty of temporarily scrambled taste perceptions.
"We don't use the term 'flavor tripping,' because people hear about it like that and think it's going to cause hallucinations," says Lamouranne. "We want this to be there for people to cut their sugar intake, for diabetics, people who need to lose weight and for people going through chemo."
Other purveyors of miracle fruit sometimes suggest on their Web sites and in marketing materials that the taste-changing power of their product can help cancer patients stay nourished during chemotherapy, among many other implied health benefits. Efforts to scientifically document any benefit have only recently gotten underway, however, and in the meantime Bartoshuk cautions against assuming the miracle fruit will do anything but temporarily change sour flavors to sweet.
"It's not a miracle cure for anything," she says. "It may well have some health benefits, but no one has proven that yet."
This spring, Dr. Mike Cusnir, an oncologist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Miami, began a clinical trial of miracle fruit through the Food and Drug Administration's Investigational New Drug (IND) program. Cusnir heard about miracle fruit from a patient who was using it during chemotherapy, and he says there is anecdotal evidence that it can help others.
"Taste dysfunction is an issue for a lot of my patients. They say they have a metallic or chemical taste in their mouths from the treatment, or that they have no taste at all," says Cusnir. "One example a patient told me is that if he gets a pizza, he can't tell the difference in taste between eating the pizza and eating the cardboard box it comes in. They lose weight because nothing tastes good; the pleasure of eating disappears."
He says miracle fruit has restored some patients' interest in food by changing their palate perceptions before meals, which encourages them to eat more and stay healthier during treatment. Cusnir hopes his clinical trial can provide some scientific credence to miracle fruit's benefits, though just getting the trial started was a challenge.
"The FDA was not sure whether to classify this as a pharmaceutical test or a nutritional test. Eventually they decided it was pharmaceutical, because we intend to prove a medical benefit," he says.
His ongoing tests include a group of chemotherapy patients taking miracle fruit on a daily basis and a control group that is not taking it. The patients complete questionnaires about their sense of taste, appetite and eating patterns, so researchers can compare their experiences.
Cusnir's trial uses whole miracle fruit, while Lamouranne and Cockfield are planning their own research in New Orleans to record feedback from chemotherapy patients using the tablet form. The two men have no medical background, nor will their research have any professional medical oversight, but Cockfield says they hope their work will produce some baseline information. They are inviting current chemotherapy patients to apply to participate through their Web site, www.miraclefruithealth.com.
"We want to get 15 applicants and give them a month's supply of tablets. The idea is to see what the tablets do for them during chemo. We're trying to generate some buzz in the chemo patient community about this," Cockfield says.
He says they also intend to conduct another round of research asking people with diabetes to use miracle fruit tablets.
"People can use apple cider vinegar to regulate their blood sugar before meals, but the problem is, they don't like the taste of it," Cockfield says. "When they use miracle fruit, it makes the vinegar taste better and they can use it regularly."
Miracle fruit has long been used by tribes in western Africa, the native territory for the miracle fruit tree. Most histories credit French navigator Reynaud des Marchais with first reporting the fruit's powers to the Western world after a 1725 expedition around what is modern-day Ghana. He is said to have noted how tribal people he encountered used the fruit before eating fermented porridges and other sour foods that composed their diet.
Beginning in the 1970s, one of Bartoshuk's former students, Bob Harvey, helped start a company called Miralin with the intent of selling miracle fruit extract as a sugar substitute. To change flavor perceptions, miraculin has to coat the taste buds before eating or drinking. Miralin devised an array of products to deliver the extract, including ice pops coated in miraculin and sugar-free soft drinks that came with straws containing the glycoprotein. The commercial momentum fizzled, however, after the FDA deemed miraculin to be a food additive requiring further testing.
But companies overseas have been packaging and marketing miracle fruit pills for years, especially in Japan. In 2006, a team of Japanese researchers even created a genetically engineered lettuce that produced miraculin.
Meanwhile, in America, a small following developed among those who heard of the fruit and could access it. One early aficionado was Curtis Mozie, a retired postal carrier in the Florida town of Southwest Ranches, near Miami. He was first introduced to the fruit 18 years ago, and was immediately fascinated with its effect. He started planting trees, eventually growing an orchard that today supplies his company Miracle Fruit Exchange, which claims to be the largest American producer of miracle fruit.
It takes a miracle fruit tree three years to begin bearing fruit, Mozie says, but once it reaches maturity it becomes quite prolific. Mozie estimates that a full-grown tree will produce a batch of 1,000 berries as often as three times a year. His farm soon was producing a huge harvest of fruit, but demand remained scant until 2007, when one of his customers wrote about his own miracle fruit tasting experience on a blog. From there, Mozie says, interest has spread quickly. He's fielded many media interviews and says his customer service reps are kept busy with phone and Internet orders. Foodies and media types aren't the only ones to come calling, however.
"Within the past year and a half we've had universities, hospitals, doctors, dieticians, researchers, all of them coming to try this out," Mozie says. "When people just hear about it, that's one thing. When they experience it, that's when they believe."