Free the Miracle Fruit!

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

 My friend Jacob Grier has created an online stir with his post about the wonders of the Miracle Fruit.

It's a small, red berry from West Africa with a strange and wonderful property: It makes sour things taste sweet.

I tried one over the weekend, from the same batch Jacob tried. You put the thing in your mouth, chew it, and slosh it around so it coats your tongue. I then bit into two lemon wedges, and ate them both. I chewed them like candy. They tasted like sweet lemonade.

The secret is a glycoprotein called Miraculin (yes, that's actually what it's called) that attaches itself to your taste buds. No one seems to be quite sure how it turns sour and bitter to sweet. The effect lasts for about 90 to 120 minutes.

The fruit is heavily marketed in Japan, where it's used in fruit form, in powder form, and now that scientists have figured out a way to isolate Miraculin, in tablets. Some chefs there have constructed low-cal deserts around the use of the fruit. Wired News reported last December that there's even Miraculin-infused lettuce in the works.

In Japan, the Miracule Fruit is particularly popular among diabetics and dieters. Those are two very large (sorry) and growing markets in the U.S. It's also used to help leukemia patients get back their appetites, and to make bitter medicine more palatable. All this would seem to mean a great market for the stuff in America. So why can't U.S. consumers get any?

It seems that the FDA banned the fruit under mysterious circumstances in the 1970s. I've seen speculation on various websites that it may have had something to do with the sugar industry, or with the fact that aspartame was working its way to FDA approval at about the same time. There's been little written about why the fruit was banned, only that the prohibition appears to have been sudden and unexpected. It came on the eve of one compnay's plan to roll out a major marketing campaign.

The Miracle Fruit has been used for centuries, now. And there have been quite a few studies of it, with no known ill-effects, other I guess than that it could potentially cause something toxic to taste better than it should. That hardly seems like a reason to ban it.

Seems like something the FDA ought to revisit, particularly with the uptick in diabetes cases over the last several years.

(Cross-posted at Hit & Run.)

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