The miracle of miraculin
by Anonymous; illustration by Kelsey Skordal
There are few things more destructive than a bored teenager. Smashing mailboxes, stealing street signs and railing lines of Pixie Stix are the habits of those whose greatest assets are a driver’s license and a fresh knowledge of calculus. In the thick of this particularly exasperating phase, I too found myself driven to extreme measures by the dullness of a poorly planned summer. It was the July before my senior year of high school, and I had little more than WiFi and curiosity to keep me occupied. I eventually began to wander into the more obscure corners of the Internet, to the websites where one can learn how to hotwire a car or successfully raise a colony of hissing cockroaches. Among my most frequented URLs was Erowid.org, a site dedicated to “documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives.”
Erowid’s pages are loaded with information about every kind of upper, downer and psychedelic one could imagine. There are personal accounts of experiences with everything from heroin to nutmeg, entire essays on how and when to get high. That summer, I squandered every spare minute poring over pages and pages of documentation of illegal drug use, inadvertently memorizing the onset, duration and appropriate dosage of dozens of illicit substances. While fascinating, the stories of k-holes and serotonin depletion weren’t nearly as engaging as those of an entirely different substance, one that I soon had delivered right to my front door. Hours of browsing Erowid’s extensive library of narcotic knowledge left me with a sudden hankering for a little thing called “miraculin,” and with the help of Amazon Prime and my last babysitting paycheck, I got my hands on the stuff in a matter of days.
Miraculin is a derivative of the fruit Synsepalum delcificum, known more commonly as the “miracle berry.” Grown in West Africa, this powerful red berry is the approximate size and shape of a kumquat, and is slowly becoming one of the most sought-after fruits on the planet. The miracle berry is completely legal, despite its presence on a website devoted to recreational drug use. In general, humans consume miraculin to experience an altered sense of taste, an activity known as “flavor tripping.” The term is a bit of a misnomer, as the fruit produces no psychoactive effect and sensory perception remains, for the most part, unaltered. Instead, the miraculin binds to receptors in taste buds when consumed, blocking the tongue’s ability to perceive certain flavors. The resulting effect causes the user to taste sour flavors as sweet for an hour or so, until saliva dissolves the protein away.
The first written account of the miracle berry comes from the notes of explorer Chevalier des Marchais, who came across the fruit in 1725 in a horticultural expedition to West Africa. In his travels, Marchais noticed members of local tribes chewing on curious looking fruits before each meal. Intrigued, he followed suit, and found that the new appetizer allowed him to enjoy the bland and rancid flavors that characterized the local cuisine. The Frenchman’s discovery marked the West’s first encounter with Synsepalum delcificum, which would eventually become a delicacy overseas, even though West African locals had been consuming the fruit for thousands of years out of necessity.
The past decade has seen a surge in flavor tripping parties, where guests consume miracle berries before sampling a wide variety of foods. Under normal circumstances, the fare served at these events would cause one to pause and question the sanity of the partygoers. Lemons, limes, coffee grounds, vinegar and other pungent foods make up the majority of the menus at flavor tripping parties. Miraculin users describe grapefruit as tasting like Skittles, vinegar as sweet nectar and dark beer as a watery version of chocolate milk. The effect of miraculin on the human tongue is so powerful it even creates potential hazards, as users are at risk of esophagus damage due to the mass consumption of highly acidic foods.
There are several ways to acquire miraculin. Fresh miracle berries are available through a handful of websites. Amateur botanists can have entire Synsepalum delificum trees shipped to them for as little as $50. Since miracle berries are perishable, alternative medicine companies have manufactured the tongue-warping ingredient into convenient tablets. I toyed with the idea of investing in a few trees in the hopes of starting a miracle berry orchard, but my fear of commitment ultimately overruled this momentary daydream. I settled for the tablets instead. After browsing through the options available on Amazon, I ordered two five-pill packages of Miracle Frooties for the steep price of $5.99 each. The pills contained just two ingredients, dried miracle berry pulp and potato starch, so I assumed they were nearly pure.
The Miracle Frooties arrived in the mail three days later. I tore open the package immediately, eager to transform my taste buds. There was no rush, no waves of pleasure and confusion, no altered sense of time or place. When I placed the oval-shaped tablet on my tongue, I felt nothing other than chalky sweetness spreading through my mouth. According to the package, the Miracle Frooties are to be savored, not swallowed, in order to properly coat the taste buds with miraculin. For five agonizing minutes, I sat in my kitchen rolling the pink pill around in my mouth, wondering if I’d just completely wasted $12, plus shipping and handling. I also realized that in my haste, I’d forgotten to procure foods to try while tripping, and I scrambled to search the kitchen for something suitable. Coming up empty-handed, I settled for one of the decorative lemons sitting on my counter. I brought the lemon to my lips and bit into it as if it were a juicy orange.
Imagine the sweetest lemonade you have ever tasted. None of that low-calorie Minute Maid bullshit. I’m talking Simply Lemonade level or higher. I ate that entire lemon without a hint of a pucker and would have happily eaten several more had the corners of my mouth not been dully burning from the acid. Looking down at the yellow peels on the counter, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of my snack, making a mental note to repeat the activity in a very public place. The first experiment piqued my curiosity, so I grabbed the remaining Frooties and headed off to taste the world.
I drove to the nearest Whole Foods, making a beeline for the pay-by-pound section of the store. I gathered a bit of everything: pineapple, grapefruit, feta cheese, pickles, carrots, deli turkey, a smidgen of mac and cheese, broccoli, cauliflower, a hard boiled egg, corn and a container of balsamic vinegar. Walking up to the register, I couldn’t help but think how proud my mother would be to see her daughter eating such a balanced, nutritious meal. Perhaps these Miracle Frooties could be the answer to healthy eating, turning every drab dish into a delicacy. I popped a tablet into my mouth as the cashier rung up my purchase, and rushed to a nearby table to enjoy my psychedelic smorgasbord.
My second trip came with pleasant surprises and inevitable disappointments. The mac and cheese tasted no different than usual, nor did the turkey or the egg. Broccoli lost its bitterness but gained nothing in return, and cauliflower was bland and useless as always. The taste of carrots got a facelift when dipped in the vinegar, as the balsamic tasted just like maple syrup. The pickle wasn’t offensive, but the experience of tasting pure sugar while biting into an ugly green nub left me with serious trust issues. Feta became cheesecake. Corn became candy. Pineapple became crack cocaine. Call me a Miracle Frootie addict, but I don’t think I can eat grapefruit with a sober tongue again.
Fortunately for the greater good of the world, there are people who have found uses for the miracle berry that are far more inventive than mine. In high-end restaurants, chefs have begun to incorporate the miracle berry into their menus, often serving aperitifs spiked with the fruit to offer a mind-boggling meal experience. Scientists have collaborated with food experts to create miracle berry cocktails for chemotherapy patients, as miraculin has proved successful in counteracting the metallic taste that plagues many patients undergoing the harsh treatment.
Last week, I rummaged through my drawers to find the leftover tablets from two years ago. The remaining three were intact, but six months past their expiration date. Ignoring that minor detail, I trotted over to Rastall brunch armed with my Frooties and a familiar feeling of anticipation. “I’m gonna drink this entire cup of vinegar,” I boasted to my friends who watched incredulously as I filled a mug with white balsamic. Unbeknownst to me, the tablets had lost their potency. I discovered this the hard way, nearly choking on my vinegar as my brunchmates roared with laughter.
Bored teenagers aren’t the only ones willing to distort their senses in order to experience a brief new reality: Flavor tripping allows law-abiding citizens to experience the excitement of altered perceptions, however brief it may be. Miraculin offers the opportunity to explore the boundaries of human ability, posing a host of “what ifs” for us to toy with as we contemplate the relationship between food and our senses. As appealing as flavor tripping for every meal may be, doing so would cause one to crave old tastes and textures, ruining the pleasure of eating in the process. Luckily for me, I happen to like the regular taste of food, and while it was fun to experience life a little sweeter, I am satisfied to put my days of dining dangerously behind me.