It’s easy to assume that foods contain flavor. After all, pretty much everyone agrees what a banana tastes like, right? But according to Gordon M. Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, flavor is a sensation your mind produces in response to the foods you eat. It’s a thin distinction, but in recent years, many of us have discovered this reality during a bout of COVID when we suddenly and completely lost all sense of taste. The food didn’t change—we did.
I first read about the miracle berry after I went to a wine tasting event and discovered that every wine I tried tasted… off. I went home and took a COVID test only to see two lines, one clear, one faint. By the next day, I had completely lost my sense of taste. As a food writer, I was worried. How was I going to get my sense of taste back?
I soon learned that some COVID patients were experimenting with a fruit native to West Africa. In the past, it had been given to cancer patients whose senses of taste were affected by chemotherapy, but once the pandemic began, those in the know started using the fruit to help COVID sufferers regain some sense of taste to make eating feel like less of a chore.
According to John McQuaid, author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat, the miracle berry contains a protein, miraculin, that blocks sweet receptors but simultaneously makes acidic foods taste sweeter. Just imagine biting into a lemon to discover that it tastes like it contains more sugar than an orange or drizzling your pancakes with Tabasco sauce that actually tastes like syrup.
A decade and a half ago, in 2008, the miracle berry found its way to New York’s party scene. Miracle berry enthusiasts started holding what they called “flavor-tripping parties,” per the New York Times. Upon entering the party, guests would be handed the small, red berry. They were then instructed to tear the pulp off of the seed of the fruit with their teeth, swirling the pulp around their mouths. Then, they were in for several hours of mind-bending taste experiences. Brussels sprouts, beer, citrus wedges, cheese and tequila were laid out for guests, who tried the familiar foods and found that they elicited very non-familiar flavors.
Just a few years later, Chef Homaro Cantu, already famous for his unique and creative dishes, decided to experiment with miracle berries at a restaurant called iNG. He created miraculin tablets that guests would take as they sat down to the table. Unfortunately, iNG closed in 2014, just three years after its opening, though Cantu had intended to add miracle berry pastries to a new coffee shop menu before he died in 2015.
The miracle berry is undeniably fun for adventurous food lovers who want to experience something completely novel. But some hope that it can be applied more practically to problems in the future. Much of the world consumes far too much sugar—sugar that is ultimately damaging our health and leading to a slew of so-called lifestyle diseases. Our brains simply aren’t equipped to handle all the sugar we have access to at this point in history. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, concentrated forms of sugar would have been rare and recognized as an important source of calories. If they had found a crop of wild oranges in the forest, it made sense for them to binge on as much of the sugary fruit as they could get their hands on.
But in an age when we have access to more sugar on a daily basis than our ancestors likely would have encountered in their entire lives, it becomes difficult to resist the sugar cravings. As someone who has, on more than one occasion, polished off an entire bag of Halloween candy in a matter of hours (I was going through something, okay?), I definitely see the appeal of tricking my brain into thinking I’m indulging in something sugary when I’m really eating a plate of steamed asparagus.
So why don’t more people know about the miracle berry? And more importantly, why isn’t it widely available for those who are suffering from COVID, diabetes and the effects of chemotherapy?
As it turns out, in the ‘70s, a company called Miralin was on track to get miraculin approved as a sugar substitute. But suddenly, everything fell apart. Miraculin was going to be classified as a food additive, which required the company to jump through many (expensive) hoops to get it approved by the FDA. They were unable to do so. While it’s not entirely clear what happened, some, including Cantu, felt that Miralin was pushed out out of the market due to bribery. “The FDA commissioner that was inserted just long enough to label miracle berries as a food additive and push aspartame through regulation was accused of allegedly accepting corporate bribes,” he wrote for HuffPost.
While the miracle berry still hasn’t gotten its due, it’s actually relatively easy to get your hands on miracle berry tablets; they’re widely available online. Maybe it’s time that we all throw flavor-tripping parties of our own.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.