Adventurous teens embark on taste trips with miracle berry
The little pill looks tame enough. It's reddish and comes in an eight-pack that resembles a prescription. The package, which contains barely any English writing, comes from a mysterious company that promises a "taste trip." The pills are affordable, legal and classified as a "dietary supplement" by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And for a few adventurous Blazers, they are a mind-boggling experience.
Miracle berries, also known as miracle fruit, are seemingly magical berries that are often compressed into pill form and freeze-dried. The West African fruit is known for its astonishing capabilities to make the sourest of foods taste sweet. Since botanist David Fairchild introduced the berries to the United States in 1927, miracle berries were a barely-known countercultural phenomenon until recently. Within the last half decade, with the advent of the Internet and popular "flavor-tripping" parties, the little miracle fruit's magical capabilities are available to almost everyone and gaining popularity with a few adventurous tasters, some of who are at Blair.
After finding information about miracle fruit on the Internet, senior Josh Cutick was intrigued. "A few people in an online community said it was pretty cool," he says. The low price piqued his curiosity and he ordered two packs of the mysterious pill for $15. Cutick followed the directions on the box and let the pill dissolve in his mouth. Searching for sour foods to take with the pill, he tried a glass of sugar-free lemonade and found that it tasted sweet, much to his pleasant surprise. "It was the best cup of lemonade I've ever had," he says.
The substance in this magical pill that turns sour to sweet is known as the compound miraculin. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, sense researcher at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, explains that "miraculin is a glycoprotein, which has sugar molecules and binds to the tongue membrane." The tongue's taste receptors change their configuration, so that the acid in sour foods is neutralized and the food tastes sweet. After approximately an hour, saliva washes away the berry's effect.
Brimming with information, Cutick shared his crazy taste experiment with his psychology class. That's when senior Brady Ettinger became curious. "It really intrigued me - I asked if I could have some," he says. Cutick obliged and Ettinger planned his own taste trip. He recruited senior Annie Holt to participate on the promise that it wasn't a drug. "I promised her it's nothing psychoactive," says Ettinger. They each took half a tablet and waited for the effects to kick in before tasting a bizarrely sweet and barely recognizable lemon. "It was incredibly sweet - you couldn't tell it was a lemon," says Holt. Then, she experimented with the effects of miracle berry with other foods, which yielded less than stellar results. "I had a tofurkey and mustard sandwich and it was really gross. Everything tasted really off," she says.
Though miraculin may not make all food taste sweet, miracle berry poses no known health risks. "If there are any negative effects, we haven't found any," says Bartoshuk. But despite its safe experimentation potential and lack of risks, miracle berry is still somewhat of a countercultural phenomenon. Several theories exist as to why, the most prominent being the FDA's ban of miraculin extract as a sweetener. However, miracle berry itself, whether in berry or pill format, is completely legal even though it's relatively unknown. Tom Hettinger, Doctor of Neuroscience at the University of Connecticut Center for Taste and Smell, attributes the lack of awareness about miracle berry to society's disdain for anything resembling a drug. "It is only natural for people to avoid putting an unknown in their mouth," says Hettinger.
However, the pill's use has its drawbacks. Hettinger theorizes that miracle berry won't gain widespread acceptance because it is a curiosity, not a mind-altering drug or a valuable nutrient - and it's difficult to grow. "It needs a warm climate, is expensive to produce and probably has no special nutritional value," he says. And often, the effects of miracle berry pills don't quite live up to their hype. Still, it's a bizarre but worthwhile experience to try at least once, the flavor trippers agree. "Miracle fruit is pretty gross, but worth it if you're curious about it," says Holt.
Nellie Beckett. More »