By Julie Deardorff, Tribune Newspapers
8:10 PM EDT, March 13, 2013
There's a berry that — once you eat it — makes bitter and acidic foods taste sweet. When the tongue is under the influence of this surprising fruit, lemons become lemonade. Unripe tomatoes burst with flavor. And vinegar might be mistaken for apple juice.
It's called the "miracle berry," and some claim it can do more than temporarily confound the palate. In his new book, the "Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook," chef Homaro Cantu argues that if used properly, the berry can reduce the need for refined sugar and processed and artificial sweeteners.
Ultimately, Cantu says, by turning sour flavors into sweet ones, the berry could play a role in the nation's obesity epidemic by helping consumers break the bonds of sugar addiction.
"The problem with diets is they taste horrible. You're always sacrificing," said Cantu, who incorporates miracle berries into various courses at his innovative Chicago restaurants, a dining experience known as "flavor tripping."
"But if we can make a diet that is good enough to serve in a high-end restaurant — we season food in a back-door, roundabout way — we win by eliminating sugar. Then it's no longer a diet but a way of life."
Cantu's book, the fruit of eight years of experimentation, features 150 recipes, ranging from savory Homemade Donuts — made using a normally sour tasting, lightly fermented dough — to mincemeat pie with pickle juice and even the Skinny Margarita (the juice of limes, lemons and oranges, ice and tequila). While the foods are designed to be eaten after the berry has been consumed, the recipes can stand on their own, he said.
The cookbook will especially help those living with medical conditions, including diabetes, and cancer patients undergoing treatment, Cantu said. It's also designed to answer what he calls one of the biggest food problems: a lack of competitive options to sugar.
"Everyone talks about taxing sugar, but at end of the day, we're addicted to sweetness," he said. "We're never going to give up, so let's give them sweetness without calories and chemicals."
Still, while the berry might effectively rewire the palate and trick the taste buds, experts on taste and behavior say it's not a proven weight-loss aid. After all, the berry can make beer taste like chocolate. Here's how it breaks down:
How it works
Miracle berries contain a protein called miraculin. When miraculin is consumed it "causes foods that are acidic and would normally taste sour to stimulate sweet taste receptors on the tongue, making the foods taste sweet," said Susie Swithers, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University, whose research has looked at high-intensity sweeteners and body weight regulation.
After eating the berry — which is available online freeze-dried, frozen or in tablet form — the effect lasts 30 minutes to an hour. Tablets ($15 for 10 tablets) have the longest shelf life, but they are still highly perishable and, once opened, should be kept tightly wrapped in an airtight container. With frozen berries, make sure not to thaw one unless you plan on eating it immediately. And avoid the bitter-tasting pit.
The miracle berry could "change the future of food by significantly reducing the need for refined sugar and all processed and artificial sweeteners. It could help patients enjoy food again or feed the world on wild vegetation in any growing zone around the world," Cantu wrote.
There's no doubt the miracle berry is safe and adds a sweet taste to anything with acid, said Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida who published some of the first research on human taste and the miracle fruit in the 1970s. It also "makes all the flavors pop," she said.
Bartoshuk agrees that incorporating the berries into the diet could help reduce sugar intake and might be helpful for patients. But she doubts it will become a panacea for weight loss.
"Changing out sucrose for miracle fruit is clever," she said. "But in general, Mother Nature doesn't like being fooled. When you take calories out of something that's absolutely delicious, the brain sees that as a mistake. It's programmed to want calories and will take revenge when it doesn't get them."
That's because "when we taste something sweet, our bodies produce physiological responses, like the release of hormones, that not only anticipate the arrival of those calories and allow us to efficiently process the calories but that may contribute to our feelings of satiety," Swithers said.
When we consume artificial sweeteners, or in this case, miraculin, "we get a sweet taste in our mouth that isn't followed by the expected outcome," Swithers said. "No energy or sugar shows up, and we then learn that sweet taste is not always a good predictor of calories, and we stop producing the same anticipatory responses, and this could lead us to overeat."
In short, messing with our body's cues for fullness would cause us to have to more diligently track how much energy we've consumed to not overeat. Always reading food labels, counting calories, for example. And that, by definition, is a diet. Berry or no berry.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that artificially sweetened diet drinks do not fuel the appetite. But this is a different issue, said Swithers, who has never argued that consuming artificial sweeteners drives people to seek out additional sweet-tasting foods. "Even if you don't increase the amount of sweet things you eat, your ability to recognize that those things have calories may be affected (by the sweetener)," she said.
Long-term studies haven't looked at miraculin as a weight-loss agent, Swithers said. One published study suggested that over the short term, volunteers ate fewer calories with sour Popsicles, "but it's not clear how this would affect intake over the long term," she said.
Having a lot of acidic food in the mouth might also have negative effects, she added. Moreover, "while people might not eat as much sugar, they could still overindulge in sour-tasting things instead since those would now taste sweet."
Having excess acid in the mouth — which normally isn't a problem because we're not inclined to consume vast quantities of sour-tasting food — can lead to ulceration and perhaps mouth sores, Swithers said. "This could erode the soft tissues, as well as the teeth at some point," she said. "It would be less likely to cause problems in the stomach because the stomach is already highly acidic."
Still, taste buds always return to normal after eating miracle fruit and there are no known adverse effects, Bartoshuk said. "As far as we know, it is like eating fruit in general," she said.
Cantu sees reducing calories as a first step; he acknowledges dietary fat is another problem to contend with. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic. He eats four or five miracle berries a day, feeds them to his two young daughters and says he's found a way to incorporate the berry directly into the food. Though foods containing miracle berries aren't yet commercially available, "it will be a game changer for restaurants and food manufacturers," said Cantu, who also works as a flavor technology consultant. "The one extra step (of having to eat the berry beforehand) has prevented it from being the holy grail in sweetness consumption," he said.
He also sees his "Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook" as a catalyst for competition. "If someone wants to open a no-sugar doughnut shop, they can take my recipe and do it," he offered. "Imagine if someone opened a coffee shop across from Starbucks, charged less money and all the coffee was sugar-free because it was sweetened with lemon (and the miracle berry)? We want options. And right now, the choices with sweeteners are very limited."
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