Saturday, January 24, 2009


$17.99 for 10 tablets from ThinkGeek

Last Saturday was fairly typical in that my growling stomach and I were staring at an unappealing assortment of food-ish items and wondering by what miracle they might be rendered into dinner. But instead of being alone in my pantry I was at a "flavor-tripping" party hosted by my dear friends Margaret and Bjorn; the food was as weird or weirder that the dregs in my kitchen, but this time the vinegar-into-wine miracle actually materialized, thanks to a little red pill.

Miraculin pills are derived from a small red berry known as "miracle fruit". When eaten fresh, dried, or in pill form, a protein unique to these berries coats the tongue's taste receptors, causing sour and bitter flavors to be perceived as sweet. The effect was first documented by an French visitor to West Africa in 1725 who saw the locals eating miracle berries as an apertif before meals.

So I chomped my pill and bellied up to the world's worst buffet, laden with citrus fruit, Belgian endive, pickled garlic, radishes, plain yogurt, vinegar, cranberries, baking chocolate, rhubarb, espresso and beer. I nibbled skeptically on a wedge of lime--and it sparked in my mouth like fizzy limeade! Ditto the pomelo, lemon, grapefruit and Granny Smith apple.

Miraculin's effect lasts between 20 minutes and an hour, so with one eye on the clock I began to race my way down the table, trading tips with my fellow trippers as I went. We discovered that under miraculin's influence,
vinegar tastes like dessert wine, and goat cheese like cheesecake. I fashioned tiny sandwiches of cranberries and baking chocolate and passed them around like canapés.

Frivolous flavor-tripping parties like this had their first wave of popularity back in the 1970s, but miraculin was originally intended as a much more serious thing, a safe and natural way of satisfying the sweet cravings of diabetics and dieters. One US company's attempt to secure FDA approval for more widespread application resulted in a series of mysterious setbacks, on which some conspiracy theorists detect the sugar industry's sticky fingerprints. Today miraculin is legal in the US, but its consumption is mostly a novelty. Miraculin is commonly used in parts of Africa and Asia; one
cafe in Tokyo serves a side of miraculin with its terrible-tasting low-calorie desserts.

There are, however, limits to miraculin's miraculousness. It renders some foods tasteless and even an overdose would fail to sweeten some stubbornly sour and bitter foods (see bitter melon, below center, and resulting squinchy face, below right). And then there's the dreaded miraculin hangover, when all those foods that tasted like a good idea at the time turn around and sucker punch you in the stomach.


Margaret Quasimodo said...

hee hee! I love Bernard's squinchy face! mmm the pickled garlic was gooood. I had a sore throat the whole next day, I think from the vinegar. :)

Anonymous said...

I love bitter melon!