Day 207: Flavor-Trippin’

originally published July 25, 2012

Are you tired of eating stuff that tastes like the stuff you’re eating? Who isn’t?

Nature has provided us with a rich and elaborate spectrum of flavors, ranging from the soul-absorbing umami-sweet of Mr. Cecil’s succulent ribs on Pico Blvd in West L.A. to the What-The-Sweet-Unholy-Crap-Is-In-My-Mouth??? of Brussels sprouts. Some foods taste good, but need a kick, like adding salt to mashed potatoes, or adding bacon to other bacon.

Taste modification dates back to the beginning of eating, when prehistoric men and women decided that a sprig of greenery might take the edge of the gamey taste of mastodon meat. Modern-day science has been looking into sweet-tweakers for years. We consume too much sugar (an 8-ounce can of Dr Pepper contains roughly thirty-five pounds of sugar), which has led to a tireless campaign of alternatives, from Nutrasweet to Sucralose.

Then there’s synsepalum dulcificum.

Synsepalum dulcificum is like ecstasy for your tongue. Just as a strong dose of E can make textures like walls, industrial carpeting or tire treads feel sensual and fantastic, this Miracle Fruit (and that’s really what they call it) can make anything you eat taste sweet and delicious.

The berry itself tastes slightly sweet, but has a very low dose of natural sugar. Chewing on the sarcocarp (that’s fancy botany-talk for the fleshy part of the fruit) kicks your tongue onto its trip. Scientists aren’t exactly certain how it happens, but for about an hour after you down a few of these berries, just about anything you eat is going to taste like a sweet version of itself.

It’s believed that the berry binds to the tongue’s taste buds, then distorts the shape of the sweetness receptors to make them respond to acids instead of sugars and other such flavors. This would make lemons and limes taste like lemon and lime-flavored candies. This would make sour Cherry Starburst taste like normal Cherry Starburst.

The protein that performs the magic in synsepalum dulcificum is called miraculin, which probably makes it the most awesomely-named protein out there. Scientists have worked diligently to embed miraculin into other foods that people are more likely to eat: lettuce and tomatoes have stepped up and synthesized the protein effectively. So why isn’t every Diet product on the market sweetened with miraculin? Actually it almost was.

The Miralin Company in the mid-1970s tried to bring miraculin into the mainstream. Miralin was formed via investments by Reynolds Metals (who make aluminum foil), Barclays (investment bankers), and Prudential (also investment bankers), a logical conglomerate of folks who want to help you eat right.

They were poised to unleash this concoction of sweet upon the world when the FDA decided at the last minute (literally – the night before the product was to be launched) that miraculin, while recognized as medically safe, was technically a food additive. This meant it needed to go through more years of testing. Miralin decided that there was better money in mutual funds, junk bonds and aluminum-foil headgear, and promptly folded.

Here’s where it gets a little weird. Before packing up their (still sour) lemonade stand, Miralin requested the FDA documents under the Freedom of Information Act. What they received was page after page of almost totally blacked-out type. There was no indication as to why the FDA spontaneously shifted their stance on miraculin.

There followed accusations of sabotage, even that shady scumbags employed discreetly by the sugar industry broke in and altered the research findings, anxious to prevent the obvious dent miraculin could punch into the nation’s sugar-buying habits.

The FDA has vehemently denied any lobbying on the part of the sugar industry, but they will not release any of their files on the matter. There was a similar fervor over stevia, another sweetener which is officially categorized as a ‘dietary supplement’, despite being obviously just a sweet substance with low natural sugars that can make dessert foods delicious without kicking your blood glucose level in the nuts.

This doesn’t mean that synsepalum dulcificum berries are illegal – you can stop repeatedly dialing your crack dealer’s pager number to ask him if he can score you some. But they aren’t cheap and they’re very perishable, so you can expect to pay in the neighborhood of two bucks per berry. You only need one berry to spark the magic though, and the effects last for roughly an hour.

So make a party of it! Back in the 1970s people had discovered miraculin-sparked taste parties, in which various foods are sampled under the lingual effects of the sweetening berry. The fad is returning to life (albeit with fewer Quaaludes and Peter Frampton records), with Flavor-Tripping parties becoming a trend in New York City.

This sounds like it could be the greatest idea for a party ever. People show up, pay their entrance fee (the one I read about cost fifteen bucks to get into), and get handed a single synsepalum dulcificum berry. They are advised to scrape off the outer skin of the berry with their teeth, then chew on the berry’s innards for at least a solid minute. After that, it’s a free-for-all at the buffet.

On the menu at the rooftop party described in the New York Times article I linked to above were citrus wedges, cheeses, mustard, vinegar, pickles, dark beer, strawberries, hot sauce, and cheap tequila. One guest felt that lemon sorbet dunked into a pint of Guinness tasted like a chocolate shake. Another claimed that Tabasco sauce tasted like doughnut glaze.

The citrus fruits tasted like candy, vinegar tasted like apple juice, and goat cheese tasted like cheesecake until hit the back of the tongue, where it tasted like goat cheese. Like I said, it’s your tongue on E.

It should be noted that the bizarro-ing of flavors doesn’t negate the physical effects of the food you fling into your gullet. Acidic food can cause irritation – I can eat about three pieces of pineapple before I have to plan on dealing with a canker sore the next day. So venture forward and let your tongue trip balls, but just be aware of what you’re doing.

And don’t tell the FDA about it. They’ll come after you.

Oh, and don’t offer wine at your Flavor-Tripping party. I’ve been told that miraculin makes all wine taste like Manischewitz. You have been warned.

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