Miracle Berries

Synseplaum dulcificum is a type of wild berry, not a spell from the Harry Potter lexicon. But based on what it does, you may expect it to be from Hogwarts, not from reality.

The fruit, native to West Africa (and pictured above), is commonly called the “miracle berry.” They have a tangy, mildly sweet taste to them. Eat a few, and what happens next is magical — foods which typically taste sour suddenly taste sweet. As the New York Times noted in 2008, after eating miracle berries, Tabasco sauce tastes like hot doughnut glaze, vinegar like apple juice, limes as if they were candied, and goat cheese like cheesecake (until it hit the throat). Like magic, only sweeter.

How do they work? The berries contain a protein called “miraculin” (really), which in and of itself also sounds kind of Potter-ish. Miraculin itself is tasteless, but once you eat it, it binds to your tastebuds. For the next fifteen minutes to an hour, the miraculin tricks your tastebuds into thinking that typically sour foods are, in fact, sweet. No one knows the exact science, although a University of Minnesota researcher believes that miraculin distorts the shape of taste buds (temporarily), creating the odd effect. Regardless, miraculin does something which makes lemons taste like candy.

While believed to be safe, miraculin, of course, comes with a downside. Two, in fact. Because miraculin makes foods high in stomach-harming acids sweet, it also makes these foods easier to eat in large quantities. But miraculin does not chemically alter the food, so the person eating all these foods is getting more acid than they otherwise should.  Second, the effect of miraculin applies to more than just sour foods, rendering otherwise good-tasting food funky.

Want to give it a try? You can buy miraculin tablets on Amazon, but buyer (and eater) beware.

Bonus fact: Taste buds can be fooled in other ways as well. Ever wanted an apple pie — minus the apples? Using cream of tartar, Ritz crackers, and a few other ingredients, it can be done.

From the Archives: Shadow Boxing: Now that we’ve deceived our taste buds, let’s deceive our eyes.

Take the QuizClick the flavors.

Related reading: “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee, 4.7 stars on 251 reviews. Per the Amazon.com review, the book “explains what happens when food spoils, why eggs are so nutritious and how alcohol makes us drunk” and is “[a]s fascinating as it is comprehensive.”

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