Synsepalum dulcificum: The miracle fruit
Synsepalum dulcificum also known as the miracle fruit is a plant with a berry that, when eaten, causes sour foods (such as lemons and limes) subsequently consumed to taste sweet. This effect is due to miraculin, which is used commercially as a sugar substitute.
Common names for this species and its berry include miracle fruit, miracle berry, miraculous berry, sweet berry, and in West Africa where the species originates agbayun, taami, asaa, and ledidi.
The berry itself has a low sugar content and a mildly sweet tang. It contains a glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, called miraculin.
When the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue’s taste buds, causing sour foods to taste sweet.
While the exact cause for this change is unknown, one hypothesis is that miraculin works by distorting the shape of sweetness receptors “…so that they become responsive to acids, instead of sugar and other sweet things.”
This effect lasts until the protein is washed away by saliva (up to about 60 minutes).
Today, it is being cultivated in Ghana, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, and South Florida.
The shelf life of the fresh fruit is only 2–3 days.
Freeze-dried pulp is available in granules or in tablets, and has a shelf life of 10 to 18 months.
Miraculin is a natural sugar substitute, a glycoprotein extracted from the fruit of Synsepalum dulcificum. The berry, which contains active polyphenols, was first documented by explorer Chevalier des Marchais, who searched for many different fruits during a 1725 excursion to its native West Africa.
Miraculin does not improve the taste of bitter things.
The active substance, isolated by Prof. Kenzo Kurihara (栗原 堅三 Kurihara Kenzō), a Japanese scientist, was named miraculin after the miracle fruit when Kurihara published his work in Science in 1968.
Miraculin is a non-heat-stable protein, subject to denaturation from heating, and thus miracle berries are not taste-bud active when cooked.
While miraculin changes the perception of taste, it does not change the food’s chemistry, leaving the mouth and stomach vulnerable to the high acidity of some foods, such as lemon juice, that may cause irritation if eaten in large quantities.
- Todd Hoff: Sweet and Sour Science | The Scientist (the-scientist.com)
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