Of all our senses, taste is the one that people associate most strongly with expectations of pleasure. But indulgence comes at a cost. Almost 45 percent of the American population will be clinically obese by 2030, according to current predictions. That will increase the total toll on the healthcare system from related illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, to a staggering $60 billion.
And it’s not just in the United States. Over the past 30 years, global obesity rates have more than doubled, and behind the stark statistics is a simple truth about human nature. Most of us are bound by our innate desire for foods high in both sugar and fat, and given the opportunity to consume in excess, we will.
The values of healthy eating have been extolled for decades, but with little effect as the junk food industry has boomed. But perhaps the way forward is to work with our cravings, rather than attempt to deny them. For many, the Holy Grail of food research is to create a dessert free of both sugar and artificial flavoring that tastes as good as the real thing. The owner of a new coffee shop in downtown Chicago believes he has finally solved the puzzle.
As a chef and entrepreneur, Homaro Cantu has a reputation for an avant-garde approach to gastronomy. He believes the answer to one day eliminating sugar from our diets lies in a protein known as miraculin which was first discovered almost 50 years ago. Miraculin is a taste-modifier, one of only a handful of such naturally-occurring molecules in the world. It is found in the berries of a plant known as Synsepalum dulcificum or, colloquially, the “miracle fruit,” which grows in parts of West Africa.
In 1725, the French explorer Reynaud Des Marchais was astounded to find that the locals regularly consumed the berry to improve the taste of bland or sour breads, but until the small explosion of research into the biological mechanisms at work at the protein level over the past decade, we didn’t really understand why.
The surface of your tongue is covered by a multitude of different receptors to detect tastes from sweet to umami. Just like sugar and artificial sweeteners like aspartame, the miraculin in the berry binds to your sweet taste receptors, but far more strongly.
The acid present in sour foods sparks a chemical reaction that causes miraculin to temporarily distort the shape of these taste receptors, enhancing them and making them so sensitive that the powerful sweet signals they are sending to your brain completely drown out the sour ones.
So far, miracle fruit has largely been used as something of a fine-dining gimmick at high-end restaurants from New York to Tokyo. Customers eat the berry and for the next hour, enjoy a “flavor-tripping” experience as sour turns to sweet in their mouths until the miraculin dislodges from their tongues.
So consuming the berry before you eat a sugar-free dessert will provide you with your ‘sweet fix’ but many believe that the full potential of miraculin has yet to be explored. Cantu has spent the past eight years working on a way to actually integrate the berry powder into foods so it has the same effect, starting with a doughnut.
However, this isn’t as easy as it might seem. Both refrigerating and heating miraculin causes the protein to activate, so its taste-twisting properties are sapped long before you sample the food. Cantu’s task has been to try and create a heat-stable form of miraculin, in order to cook with it.
With this new version of the protein, the effect only lasts for as long as it takes you to finish your doughnut.
“It’s the same reaction, but this time it happens in thousandths of a second,” he explains. “The miraculin will only latch onto your taste receptors for a small amount of time, just enough for you to enjoy the food that’s in your mouth.”
But if you’re expecting to be able to buy miraculin flavored doughnuts on the high street anytime soon, then think again.
The idea of introducing the miracle berry into food as a sugar replacement was actually first conceived almost 50 years ago by an entrepreneur called Robert Harvey who began to create a range of sugar-free products coated with the berry extract. Initially, his company Miralin appeared destined for instant success. In a poll in which schoolchildren were asked to choose between a sugary food and one of Harvey’s new treats, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of the latter.
However, things were about to change rapidly. The sequence of events which ensued would not look out of place in a Hollywood film. Harvey began to suspect that he was being followed on the way home from work; then one night in the summer of 1974, he reported that his office had been raided and his files stolen.
Shortly afterwards, the previously supportive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that miraculin was an additive, meaning that the berries could not be sold as a sugar substitute without further testing. Harvey suspected foul play. He suggested that the FDA had been pressured by the powerful manufacturers of sugar and artificial sweeteners, keen to quash this new challenge to their business, something both parties denied.