An article last year in the New York Times introduced the berry known as “miracle fruit” (Synsepalum dulcificum) to a readership on perennial orange alert for breaking food thrills. The “tiny fruit that tricks the tongue,” as the article described it, is native to West Africa and contains a protein that binds to the tongue’s taste receptors and causes sour foods to taste sweet. “Flavor-tripping” parties, in which participants nibble the berries and experiment with different foods, were called a trend, and the article reported from one such event. Participants under the berry’s influence exclaim that Tabasco sauce tastes like hot donut glaze and Guinness like a chocolate shake.
Six months after the article appeared I received a package in the mail from Ty-Good Life Technology Engineering and Senyuh Farming Technology Co. It was a birthday gift from a friend and contained a freeze-dried blister pack of ten miracle fruit tablets, return-addressed MiracleFruitTab.com. I went to the website: “Undergoing the effect of miracle fruit can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a life time,” read the text. “We have personally witnessed hundreds of people that are at a loss of words, or even question their sanity after experiencing the fruit!” For one or two hours, it explained, the tablets would transform all acidic foods into sweet-tasting foods.
Internet entrepreneurs market the tablets as a sugar substitute for dieters and diabetics, but this would not work for many reasons. Cost is one: a tablet with each meal means twenty-one tablets per week, or a weekly miracle fruit expenditure of $32, not reimbursable by insurance. Other reasons are emotional: we eat sweets to feel decadent and because sugar lightly intoxicates us. Miracle fruit accomplishes neither pleasure.
But it does work, in a basic sense. The tablets I received were ash pink and tasted like cranberries. After smooshing one around on my tongue for a minute, lemon flesh had the flavor of lemonade and tomatoes turned jammy. Regular mustard became honey mustard and horseradish seemed to be powdered with Splenda. The thing about miracle fruit is that it doesn’t make things taste good; its value, rather, is transgressive, banishing childhood behavioral restrictions like “Don’t bite into the lemon.” This form of freedom is reliably fun. Guides to miracle fruit note that long-term use can cause oral ulcers.
Revisiting the New York Times article after trying miracle fruit is another matter. To interpret Tabasco as donut glaze requires wishful thinking and recalls the party guest who’s wearing a lampshade after one beer. One suspects a preexisting need to make food more interesting than it is, more beautiful, more strange—an impulse more fundamental than a flavor-tripping party. Michael Pollan instructs us to avoid any additive that our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food (which means avoiding almost anything that comes in a jar, box, or carton), lest we be fooled into ingesting something that isn’t “real” and won’t be good for us. But it is the other side of our interest—our strange need, with all the transformed foods that we have, to seek further transformations, whether in “processed food” or whole—that miracle fruit highlights.