Growing on the shaded slopes in West Africa are unassuming shrubs with white flowers and tiny, bright red berries. At first glance, there’s nothing special about these shrubs, but the red berries hanging off of their branches contain a potent secret; they’re full of miraculin, a glycoprotein that has a truly unique effect on the human tongue. Miraculin has the magical ability to make sour foods taste sweet, and there’s no other substance on the planet that has that ability. After eating just one berry, for hours after, every sour taste will taste as sweet as sugar. Lemons lose their lip-puckering sourness and turn into a fruit that tastes exactly like sugary lemonade. With such an inexplicable quality to it, it’s hard to imagine why miracle berries aren’t more common in cooking; that is, until you dig into the history of miracle berries.
In West Africa, the fruit has been used as a sweetener for centuries. The region is known for sour drinks such as palm wine and pitto, a sour beer made from fermenting grains. Even their food staples, breads like kenky and a traditonal gruel made from stale bread, have a notoriously sour taste to them. As the locals stuff themselves on sour bread and beer, they don’t even taste the sourness; in fact, everything tastes rather sweet and pleasant. It’s a custom in the region to pop a couple of miracle berries before each meal, which gets rid of the unpleasant sourness and replaces it with delicious sweetness.
The typical Western diet is packed with sugar, which is starting to produce a tremendous amount of adverse health effects. Miracle berries, with the negligible sugar content and radical ability to make things taste sweet, seems like a magic solution to the sugar and health problem. So, why hasn’t the Western diet embraced miracle berries? Well, it’s not for a lack of trying.
In the early 1970s, an entrepreneurial American, Robert Harvey, managed to process the berries and extract the miraculin that could act as a direct substitute for processed sugar. Not only did he manage to capture the sweet sensation of sugar, but his miraculin compound had zero calories in it, making it a vastly healthier alternative to sugar. He did testing and found that an overwhelming majority of people preferred his miraculin-sweetened treats to their sugary counterparts. Some major investors poured money into his fledgling company and miraculin was poised to take the world by storm. However, during 1974, right before miraculin was about to release into the market, the FDA, in a last-minute decision, decided to reclassify miraculin as a food additive. This reclassification forced Harvey’s product to be pulled from store shelves all across America and subjected his compound to years upon years of FDA bureaucracy. It’s still not been approved and has been shelved indefinitely.
Famed chef Homaro Cantu, who tragically passed away in 2015, brought miracle berries into the culinary scene and reopened enthusiasm for the tiny, red berries. During 2011, Cantu opened iNG, a restaurant devoted to using miracle berries in their dishes to provide an experience like no other. iNG achieved critical acclaim and brought miracle berries into Western cuisine in a big way. Sadly, iNG closed during 2014, but the flavor-tripping experience can still be found in a cafe that Cantu also opened, Berrista. Located in Chicago, Berrista offers coffees sweetened with lemon juice and pastries that don’t have a pinch of sugar; customers just need to eat a miracle berry before indulging.
Hopefully, the success of iNG and Berrista inspire other chefs to work with miracle berries, or better yet, if the FDA finally approves Harvey’s miraculin compound. What is certain is that the entire globe has an insatiable craving for sweet flavors, but eating sugar comes with health costs. Miraculin and miracle berries can satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth in a healthy way.