[Update 3/30/07: Miracle fruit in the Wall Street Journal! Read about it here.]
A few days ago I received an invitation from my friend and EatFoo co-blogger David Barzelay to try some “miracle fruit.” According to rumor, this unusual fruit possesses an amazing property. Eating one temporarily alters one’s sense of taste, making sour, bitter foods taste sweet and delicious. People in West Africa, native home to miracle fruit, have reportedely used it for centuries to make their diets more palatable.
It’s also a literally forbidden fruit. Attempts to market it and its active protein miraculin to diabetics were mysteriously thwarted by the FDA in the 1970s, relegating miracle fruit to underground cult status. David, however, had found a source willing to ship a supply next day air to DC from Florida.
Given David’s history of practical jokes, I was skeptical at first. Miracle fruit? Works with “miraculin?” Sounded like just the kind of crazy thing he would make up. But if it was a joke, the Athananius Kircher Society was in on it too. So with barely a touch of trepidation, I told David I was in. Besides, if worst came to worst, “libertarian foodie dies eating fruit banned by the FDA” is about the most appropriate obituary headline I could ever imagine for myself, so there was really nothing to lose.
The miracle fruit party was last night. I arrived to find a group of twenty-five or so curious people, a spread of citrus items, and, wrapped up in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator, a bunch of little red fruits: the understated star of the show, miracle fruit.
They’re bright red, about the size of an olive, odorless, and just a little bit soft. The center is mostly pit. To get the most of them, David explained that we should chew the pulpy part for about a minute and coat as much of our mouth as possible with it. Then we’d be free to spit or swallow and experience the magic of miraculin.
We started out by taking a quick taste of lime, just to get a fresh impression of what lime tastes like. Then we passed around a plate of miracle fruits, all of us taking one like eager cultists taking punch. A minute went by as we swirled the stuff around in our mouths.
The fruit itself is mostly tasteless, though slightly sweet. The pit is surrounded by a weird, slick layer of pulp. It’s not bad to eat, but one would get bored with it pretty quickly. The true test came next, as we again sampled the lime. The result? Utter astonishment. The very same lime we’d tried moments before suddenly tasted like it had been dipped in sugar. All the stinging acidity was gone, leaving only the pleasing citrus and an amazing sensation of sweetness that left us craving more.
Our sense of taste completely transformed, we orgiastically began sampling everything we could get our hands on. Lemons tasted like lemonade. Meyer lemons tasted like the sweetest oranges. Grapefruits tasted awesome, and I don’t even like grapefruit. Goat cheese tasted like candy. Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout tasted bigger and sweeter than ever. (One of us had never had a stout before. After drinking stout with miraculin, every other will probably be doomed to disappoint.)
My own contributions were a beer and a coffee. The beer was Magic Hat’s Roxy Rolles seasonal ale, which kept its intriguing flavor while losing its normally hoppy bite. For my friend who doesn’t like hoppy American beers, the miracle fruit “fixed” it.
The coffee was Counter Culture’s Rwanda Karaba, which is well-balanced and boasts some rich fruit notes. This was the one thing that the miracle fruit didn’t seem to change much for me, except perhaps for a very slight increase in sweetness. One of the other guys was amazed that he was able to drink it black, but I’m not sure if that was the result of the miracle fruit or if he just wasn’t used to drinking really good coffee.
The bottom line: miracle fruit is amazing. Imagine a party of people chomping into lemons and limes with abandon, and you’ve got an idea of its power.
As miracle fruit devotees have noted, this produce ought to be more than just a foodie’s underground novelty item. Aside from being interesting on its own merits, it has practical applications. Before the FDA stepped in it received a warm reception among diabetics who were able to enjoy sweet flavors without worrying about their sugar intake. Dieters could use it to avoid items high in calories, which is how one dessert spot in Japan markets the stuff. In Japan it’s even being sold in tablet form now. In the US, I bet innovative restaurants would do well with a dessert course of miracle fruit, citrus, and cheese.
Alas, the FDA’s refusal to allow marketing of miracle fruit has kept it an unknown treasure. The exact reasons for the ban are unknown. Perhaps lobbyists from the sugar industry blocked its approval. Or perhaps it was for the children; the FDA feared miraculin would mask the taste of aspirin and other things that are toxic in high quanities, causing kids under its influence to chow down on them. This lengthy article on miracle fruit says that miracle fruit doesn’t actually have that effect. Aspirin wasn’t on our tasting menu last night, but I believe it. The article also presents a lot of other evidence that the fruit is completely safe.
But who cares about the sugar industry? Who cares about the children? I’m not sure exactly what the FDA ban entails, whether it’s on all sales, all marketing, or just marketing as a sugar substitute. In any case, miracle fruit is awesome. Everyone should be able to try the stuff. A fruit this fun deserves a wider audience.
[Cross-posted on EatFoo.]
Update: Abi has photos.
Update 7/8/08: I’ve now tried the miracle fruit tablets, which are easier to handle, and reviewed them here.