While on an expedition in the interior parts of South Africa in 1725, Chevalier des Marchais, a European explorer, noticed that the inhabitants of that particular region would eat a particular fruit prior to their meals. Deseeding that fruit and chewing it for nearly two minutes before consuming their food was their daily ritual. Being a botanist, Chevalier des Marchais was aware of various types of fruits but was completely unaware of this unusual fruit. After being eaten prior to any food, this fruits converts the flavor of the food and enhances its perceived sweetness; no matter whatever its original taste would be. The only criterion is that the food eaten after consuming the fruit should be a bit sour; and if not, it was required to add a few drops of lime juice to allow the fruit formulate its sweetness on the taste buds. Botanically known as Synsepalum dulcificum, this fruit is popularly known as the miracle fruit. (See photo below.) The fruit, however, did not gain commercial significance outside Africa, as it is highly perishable and has a shelf life of hardly a few hours after being plucked.
Nearly after three centuries since it was discovered by Chevalier des Marchais, the miracle fruit is now widely used by Japan. The Japanese restaurants serve it to the customers after lunch or dinner, but before the round of desserts, be it ice cream, pudding, lemon cake, etc. The actual taste of the miracle fruit is hardly sweet (its taste is similar to Indian gooseberry) and yet it converts the citric taste of pineapple or even the sour taste of lemon to an absolute sugary feel. As a matter of fact, the chemical composition of the lemon does not change but it just changes the way the tongue and the taste buds react to it. The ‘sweet effect’, however, lasts for only 15 to 60 minutes after which the taste buds can not be ‘deceived’ and work normally.
So, how does the miracle fruit change the natural properties of the taste buds? That’s really a tough question. Even learned scientists do not have a perfect answer but their guess attributes this ‘sweet deceit’ to miraculin, a glycoprotein present in the fruit that changes the taste. The radicals present in miraculin react with and change the shape of the cells present on the tongue that identify the sour taste and modify them to the pattern of those cells that identify the sweet taste. Yes, for this reaction to take place the food consumed should have a little sourness in it.
A commercial attempt of segregating the miraculin from the fruit and selling it in tablet form was made in 1970. These tablets were even commercially sold for a short time in the USA. However, it was not officially acknowledged as a substitute of sugar by the US Government, which tagged its sales as illegitimate. It is said that that farmers producing and reaping sugarcane along with the owners of sugar factories pressurized the US Government to not give this African fruit an official status, which turned its commercial task ‘sour’.
Miracle fruit – Synsepalum dulcificum (Wikipedia)