Tricking Taste

27 Jul 2013 06.22 am by K. Daniel

How we taste foods determines how we assess foods. This very basic fact has aided humans in our evolutionary adaptation of distinguishing what taste good, what is safe to eat, and what to avoid. Through our taste buds we develop preferences for certain foods, while avoiding others which are not found to be palatable. It is a basic capability that although inconspicuous, if changed or removed would have a very large impact on our lives.

Through continuously eating the foods that we consume on a daily basis, we develop certain associations between foods and the taste as well as aroma sensations we experience. Some cheeses are pungent, fruits may be sweet or sour, some vegetables are bitter while others taste vegetal, grassy. Through these associations, an expectation develops when we consume such products. If I were to eat a ripe, rosy cheeked mango, I'm expecting it to be sweet. But if it turns out to be sour, or perhaps bitter, the joy I get from eating that fruit will decrease. The food does not live up to expectation, and so will be labelled inferior, or of lower quality.

But what if there was something that could alter how I perceive foods? What if sour lemons and limes were to taste sweet, much like lemonade or soda?

Enter the taste altering ability of the Miracle berry, Synsepalum dulcificum. The red berry of this West African fruit has some very unique properties when eaten, namely, it makes things taste sweet. In itself, the fruit is not very sweet, with some descriptions describing it to be akin to a weak tasting cranberry. Locally it is used in the production of palm wine, or added into fermented porridge. But the most notable use for the fruit involves miraculin, a protein isolated from the fruit pulp, which binds to most of your taste bud receptors.

And so what is a consequence of this? Sour foods that enter your mouth will taste sweet, or at least sweeter, although results have been mixed. Some who have eaten the berry (well, spread the pulp around the tongue for about one minute) and proceeded to sample strongly flavoured goods display either excitement and pleasure or revulsion, probably again because of the strong association we have between foods and their flavours.

Citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, and grapefruit seem to be a popular fruit to eat with the berries, so are other strongly acidic produce and products such as vinegar. Fruits that are already sweet on their own such as strawberries and bananas did not seem to register an extreme change in flavour. The effect is limited to the mouth of course, with some accounts on vinegar being described as a mildly burning sensation down your throat. Neither does the berry affect other parts of the body such as the stomach, at which in some cases antacids were consumed to counteract the large amount of food acids ingested.

The fruit itself which was rarely available outside West Africa, but now grown in Puerto Rico, Ghana, Taiwan, and South Florida, does not keep well. Shelf life of the fruit pulp lasts at about 2-3 days at most once picked, and the protein deactivates rapidly when heated. Because of those reasons, most commercialized products from the fruit are freeze dried or packed into tablets, which increases its shelf life to up to 18 months. But its use as a food product does not stop there either.

Due to the unique properties of the fruit (or rather, the protein inside the fruit), it was considered to be used as a food ingredient in the early 1970s however by 1974 the United States FDA (Food & Drug Administration) concluded that it should be classified as a food additive, and so subject to rigorous testing and regulations. Since its use in food processing was limited, and the original company which planned to manufacture and use the berry as a food ingredient did not have the funds to comply with testing, it was abandoned and remained as a novelty. Flavour tripping as it is called, although not very commonplace is still a rather popular activity, where people volunteer to have their taste buds altered and view foods from a different taste perspective. Antacids optional.



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