Life just got a little sweeter thanks to a native West African fruit about the size of a cranberry.
The miracle fruit, “miracle berry,” or more formally Synsepalum dulcificum contains a glycoprotein – conveniently named miraculin - that temporarily fools taste buds into believing that sour and bitter things taste sweet.
Chef Homaro Cantu of Chicago's Moto and iNG restaurants is on a mission to work miracles of his own by using the berry in his restaurants – and beyond.
mBerry has been distributing a freeze-dried form of the fruit in tablets since the company’s creation in 2008.
"It’s no different from a dried drink mix made from berries," says Cantu.
Cantu believes the pill could do away with the need for refined sugar, helping at-risk and current diabetics curb their sugar cravings. Miracle berry supporters also assert that it could create a whole new encyclopedia of gastronomy – including leaves, barks and grasses – that could expand the globe's edible yield.
“All of the plants that we do not consider food that are safe for the human body to digest, we don’t eat because they’re sour and bitter. The reason why you don’t eat Kentucky bluegrass or crabgrass is because it tastes sour and bitter,” says Cantu.
“But here you can do that, because it blocks your ability to taste sour and bitter things and it takes on a very complex, herbaceous quality.”
Yet despite his focus on diabetes and famine, Cantu was first introduced to the ingredient because of another global health issue – cancer.
Knowing Cantu’s interest in the convergence of food and science, friend Paula Perlis called the chef in 2005 with a favor to ask: Her close friend was undergoing chemo and radiation therapy and had not eaten, or enjoyed, a solid meal in six years. (A common side effect of chemotherapy is a strong metallic taste in your mouth.)
Cantu called on Ben Roche, pastry chef at Moto and future co-host of “Future Food,” to assist him on the endeavor.
“We chewed on car tire rubber and foil for months trying to mimic the flavor you get from radiation and chemotherapy,” says Cantu.
After trial-and-error with random ingredients, the chefs finally created a cocktail that counteracted the metallic taste. The cocktail included the miracle berry.
The chefs then isolated the fruit in powder form, passed it along to Perlis’s friend and received a successful - and grateful - call shortly after.
Since then, Cantu has given away the miracle berry away to thousands of chemo patients on his own dime – with no reports of adverse reactions.
“The interesting thing about the miracle berry in chemo patients is that it actually straightens out their taste buds, whereas for you and I, it blocks our bitter and sour receptors,” says Cantu. “For them, it straightens them out to taste food as it normally tastes.”
But as the idiom goes, everything old is new again: the miracle fruit has been known for nearly three centuries. It was first documented in 1725 by French explorer Chevalier des Marchais.
However, it wasn't until 1919 that the fruit was shipped to the United States. It steadily gained popularity throughout the years – that is until 1974, when the Food and Drug Administration ruled that miraculin was not GRAS (an acronym for “generally recognized as safe”) and labeled it a “food additive” instead of a natural sugar substitute.
“…[It's] claimed that competitors, either from the sugar or artificial sweetener industries, or perhaps a scientist who was working on an alternate berry extract, had pressured the FDA to rule against the miracle berry being granted GRAS status,” wrote Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society, in Dr. Joe’s Health Lab.
Cantu and other miracle berry advocates, like the producers of mBerry, have been trying to reverse its reputation since.
Back at iNG, guests are given a tablet at the end of the meal. Once the tablet dissolves, diners “flavor trip” for about a half hour. During that time, a lemon wedge will taste like a sweet glass of lemonade, while a lime will taste like an orange.
Combine the lemon juice with sour cream and gelatin, and you’ve got lemon cheesecake. A glass of red wine suddenly tastes like port, and white wine like Sauternes.
"I don’t know if it will become a regular part of my repertoire because it’s something new, it’s different," said recent “flavor tripper” Andrew Kaplan, the Director of Special Projects for Rachael Ray. "I think it’s a great conversation piece. If nothing else, a great party trick too."
Just as the name of his show suggests, Cantu is always looking toward “Future Food” – but is hopeful for at least an impact in the next five years, starting with the release of "The Miracle Berry Diet" cookbook in 2012.
Read more about Chef Cantu's mission at The Next List
Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more. We invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. Catch up on past coverage and read the live blog from our Secret Supper in Chicago with Homaro Cantu.