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Taste the magic: A tropical berry makes sour foods taste sweet.

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Magic fruit can be a centerpiece for a food party. (Photo courtesy of NOTCOT)

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Magic fruit can be a centerpiece for a food party. (Photo courtesy of NOTCOT)

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Magic fruit can be a centerpiece for a food party. (Photo courtesy of NOTCOT)

It was Valentine’s Day, and Adam Whitten wanted to give his girlfriend, Julie Edmonds, a school teacher in New York City, an experience she wouldn’t easily forget. He knew she had super sensitive taste buds, so sensitive that eating any citrus fruit—even oranges and grapefruit--made her mouth pucker up like a wizened prune.

So he presented her with a tiny a box, inside of which were six red berries, about the size and shape of cranberries. Whitten told her don’t ask any questions, just eat one of the berries, and then he presented her with a selection of some of her least favorite fruits--oranges and grapefruits. Preparing herself for the usual distasteful experience, Edmonds got a surprise: They didn’t taste sour at all; they actually tasted sweet. Edmonds was delighted, he said. “She had never eaten an orange before,” Whitten said. “I thought that would be a perfect Valentine’s Day gift.”

The berry that made the U-turn in taste for Edmonds is called “magic fruit.” The plant grows commonly in tropical climates, but, thanks to some enterprising and adventurous eaters, it is now finding its way to the living rooms around the country where people of all ages are enjoying its magic effects.

The plant was first discovered in the 1725 by a French explorer, Des Marchais, when he traveled to Africa’s Gold Coast where magic fruit grows indigenously, said Adam Leith Gollner, author of “The Fruit Hunters,” a new book that explores the history of magic berries and other fruit. During the trip, Marchais observed that locals ate these berries before consuming bland porridges and tart palm wine and noticed that the berry significantly sweetened normally sour foods.

Food scientists are still not certain about how the berry works. They do know that, in order to taste food, humans rely on the tongue’s receptors, of which there are four types, one each to identify sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavors. According to Harry Lawless, a professor at Cornell University’s food science department, magic fruit contains a protein called miraculin that seems to attach itself to the sour receptor and acts somehow to neutralize the reaction to sourness. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down because it masks the bitterness,” Lawless said.

The same effect may occur with the miracle fruit. When miraculin detects foods that have low pH value--ones that are acidic and taste sour--it releases sugar molecules into the sour receptors, changing the perception of sourness into sweetness, according to one theory. The effect lasts approximately one-half hour, before it wears off completely. And it leaves no adverse effects, Dr. Lawless said. “It’s a naturally occurring berry and, as far as I know, it’s totally safe.”

In fact, Lawless was enthusiastic enough about miracle fruit that he contributed his research to a cookbook of dessert recipes. Each of the dishes would be “sweetened” with lemon juice, a clever substitute for sugar, and then people would take some extract of the berry before eating the dishes. But the innovation was never approved by the Food and Drug Administration. “There’s speculation that the sugar lobby was involved,” said Gollner, the author of the upcoming book. The agency’s disapproval may enhance the experience for some: “It’s a forbidden fruit; what could be more exciting?” Gollner said.

For today’s legions of foodies, magic fruit is offering a unique opportunity to rediscover everyday foods. “You look at a lemon that you’ve tasted a million times, and all of a sudden it tastes delicious and sweet and nonsour at all,” said David Barzelay, 25, a law student at Georgetown University and an enthusiastic home chef in Washington, D.C.

Barzelay often hosts miracle-fruit parties, inviting friends to sample the berry’s effect on a variety of foods. Last February, he ordered 75 miracle fruit berries and invited a few dozen friends to his apartment. First, he asked his guests to taste a wedge of lemon and watched their faces pucker up.

Next, he handed out the fruit and told everyone to chew the berry, being careful not to swallow the large pit, and allow the juice to coat their tongues for about a minute. After they discovered that the lemons tasted sweet, Barzelay offered up other foods to sample: some citrus fruits along with beer, wine and coffee. He might just as well have included other nonsweet foods such as rhubarb, stout, vinegar, goat cheese and radishes. “I was amazed that the berry not only had the promised effect, but that it was so emphatic,” Barzelay said. “It was an exciting, surprising and surreal experience.”

Once the Internet began to buzz with the news, magic-fruit-savvy entrepreneurs jumped into the game. Neel Shah, for instance, a magazine editor in New York City, tasted the berry while on vacation in Palm Beach, Fla., and instantly realized its commercial potential.

He got in touch with a local grower and set up a Web company called Miracle Connect. Through Shah’s site, customers can order the berry and have it shipped overnight from Florida: An order of six costs $30 and the price per berry goes down for larger batches. He ships them fast because, as he warns customers, the fruit starts to lose its effects after a few days off the vine. Shah, whose company is among at least a dozen that now market the fruit, said he ships hundreds of berries per week to customers all over the U.S. “People like things that play with their senses and the perception of taste.” he said.

In typical yin and yang fashion, nature also contains a plant that removes the sweet flavor of foods. It’s called Gymnema sylvestre, a leafy green herb that grows in India and that temporarily disables the tongue’s receptors for sweet flavors. It is often used as a natural diet and diabetes remedy, discouraging people plagued with a sweet tooth from turning to sugary snacks, because, now, they won’t be sweet anymore.

E-mail: yb2183@columbia.edu