What Is Miracle Fruit?

Discovered in West Africa in 1725, miracle fruit is a specialized berry that enhances the sweetness of foods by making acids taste sweet. Unlike products such as Splenda and Equal, the miracle berry is not an artificial sweetener.  Artificial sugars mimic the structure of sucrose, the natural sugar found in fruits and vegetables.  With a similar structure, these substitutes, such as sucralose and aspartame, can bind to receptors on the tongue that detect sugars.  As a result, the brain interprets a sweet flavor.

Natural sucrose and its replacement, sucralose.  Notice the almost identical structures, but the change of two hydroxyl  groups into chlorine. 

Once digested, sucrose is broken down through the process of hydrolysis into fructose and glucose.  Sucrose contains four calories per gram, which the body can use for energy.  However, the body does not contain the proper enzymes to break down most artificial sweeteners, making them zero calorie substitutes.  Additionally, these sweeteners are 100 – 1,000 times sweeter than sucrose due to their structures, so consumers only need a fraction of what they would use in sucrose to sweeten foods. These sweeteners are most popular in diet bars, drinks and shakes; however, they decompose under heat, so they cannot be baked.  Also, many consumers worry that sugar substitutes cause health risks such as cancer, but research does not support this. Unlike natural sugar and artificial sweeteners, the special ingredient in Miracle Fruit is not a carbohydrate but a protein called miraculin.  Proteins, or polypeptides, are long chains of amino acids.  They are relatively linear, but bend and fold in specific configurations when in certain environments. Like sugars, miraculin binds to the sweet receptors on the tongue.  When an acid is introduced and mixes with saliva, it releases a proton, which the protein accepts.  As a result, the miraculin has a positive charge and must refold into a new configuration.  So, in the presence of an acid, the protein completely changes its shape while attached to the receptor.  The brain then interprets a sweet taste in addition to the suppressed sour one.

Miraculin attached to the sweet taste receptors.

Moreover, miraculin does not alter the flavor of basic or neutral foods and remains completely inactive without an acid.  After about an hour, saliva washes the protein from the receptors and the effects wear off. Unfortunately, like artificial sugars, miraculin decomposes under heat, so it cannot be baked.  Nevertheless, consuming a Miracle Berry or miraculin tablet effectively enhances the sweetness of a meal eaten afterward.  Miraculin is not harmful, unless the consumer is allergic to the protein, but reactions are rare and mild. Miracle Fruit grows very slowly and plants only produce a couple of berries per year.  Fortunately, Japanese scientists have genetically modified lettuce to produce the protein.  Although miraculin may not become popular in America.  Due to competition with the sugar industry and its strong influence, the FDA declared that miraculin can be legally grown, but not used in foods.  Still, online websites sell freeze dried berries and miraculin tablets, roughly $15 for a pack of 10 pills.

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Nevertheless, endless possibilities still exist for miraculin.  Firstly, miraculin helps dieters and diabetics control their sugar intake without sacrificing flavor.  Additionally, cancer patients argue that miraculin suppresses the metallic taste caused by chemotherapy.  Lastly, the US Army has considered using miraculin to help soldiers survive when deprived of flavorful foods.

Cookbook that utilizes acids, such as lemon juice and yogurt, and miraculin tablets to replace sugar.

Of course, I was devastated when I heard that miraculin cannot be baked.  Nevertheless, I purchased the tablets online and participated in a taste test with my close friend, Nina.  Lemon juice tasted like lemonade and limes like candy!  Vinegar tasted incredibly sweet too, but burned the back of our throats!

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Nina and me during our taste test.

It was a great experience, but of course miraculin tablets aren’t the most ubiquitous product.  So today, I decided to bake and share a sweet and sour recipe inspired by this topic: lemon bars.

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With the miraculin tablets, these lemon bars wouldn’t need any sugar!

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I started with a buttery crust.  Don’t worry if the dough has large pieces of butter!  This will make for a nice, fluffy crust.  Also, I pressed the dough in very gently, so it wouldn’t become too dense.

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While the crust is in the oven, prepare the filling.  For this recipe, I used two giant lemons.  I strained the juice, but then removed the seeds and added the pulp.

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Once the crust is golden, let cool slightly, then add the filling, and bake again.  If you pour in the filling too soon, the crust might fall flat.

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Let cool before serving.  Use a plastic knife for a nice clean cut.

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Enjoy!

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Lemon Bars Crust

1 cup  butter

1/2 cup sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

Filling 

6 eggs

2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

3/4 cup lemon juice

3/4 cup flour

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

For the crust, cream the butter and sugar until light.  Add flour and salt.  Gently flatten dough into a pan and bake for 25 minutes, or until very lightly browned. Let cool and leave the oven on.

For the filling, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour. Pour over crust and bake for 40 minutes, until the filling is set. Let cool.

Cut into squares.  Serve at room temperature or cold.

Makes 24 squares.

Thanks to these sites for the information on Miracle Fruit and miraculin.

MBerry

How Stuff Works

Scientific Psychic

Mayo Clinic

Chemistry Explained

Scientific American

Food Network

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