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Researchers decode the mystery of miracle berry’s ‘flavor tripping’ power

Japanese scientists have discovered how the miracle berry turns sour foods sweet in the mouth. The discovery could be used to create foods like sweet-tasting lemons. Photo: Danylchenko Iaroslav/shutterstock.com

Researchers in Japan have been able to tap into the secrets of how a “flavor tripping” miracle berry from Africa is able to trick eaters into believing sour foods taste sweet – a discovery that could result in genetically modified, lab-grown fruits and vegetables and commercial grocery store products.

In a study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, scientists from the University of Tokyo explained how a special protein in the miracle berry called miraculin attaches itself to the sweet-sensing taste buds and ramps up the sensitivity of the tongue’s sweet sensors.

When introduced to sour foods, miraculin was observed to bind to sweetness receptors a million times stronger than aspartame and 100 million times stronger than sugar.

While the miracle berry’s mind-bending ability to turn sour foods sweet has in recent years become a novel party trick at dinner parties and avant-garde restaurants like Chicago chef Homaro Cantu’s restaurant iNG, the food has been consumed in West Africa for centuries.

It’s also been touted as a potential solution to world hunger, obesity and diabetes.

Meanwhile, to figure out how the berries work, Japanese researchers molecularly engineered the human sweet receptor and studied the effects of the miracle berry on the cells.

As for commercial food uses, the berry works best when introduced to highly acidic foods and may work to mask the sourness of lemonade, but would be ineffective as an all-purpose sweetener in foods like coffee, experts say.

Another team of Japanese scientists succeeded in engineering a tomato grown with miraculin that produced the same tastebud trickery as the miracle berry. The invention could pave the way for other genetically modified grocery store foods as well.


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