The miracle berry, or synsepalum dulcificum, is shown.
The miracle berry, or synsepalum dulcificum, can turn that lemon into lemonade. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

What would you think if you bit into a lemon and it tasted like lemonade? Drank vinegar and it tasted like apple juice? Sipped a stout beer and it tasted like chocolate milk?

You might think it’s a miracle. And it is.

A miracle berry.

It’s called the miracle fruit, or synsepalum dulcificum.

It’s a small, red berry that originated in West Africa in the 18th century, and it has gone mainstream in the last decade, becoming the subject of articles in major newspapers and television shows such as The Doctors.

The berry is also the star of flavor-tripping parties, where people pay good money to sample the berry and trick their tongues with its effects.

Andrew Heaford, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, has researched the miracle fruit and deemed it safe.

“It’s a glycoprotein, just like any other protein we may eat, that binds with the taste buds, not causing any damage, and changes how the taste bud fires,” Dr. Heaford said. “It makes sour things taste sweet.”

The berry is actually very low in sugar itself, but its flavor-twisting properties are credited to a glycoprotein molecule called miraculin, which causes a reaction on the taste buds and induces a sweetness flavor when it contacts sour acids, Dr. Heaford said.

The miraculin actually binds the sweet taste receptors on the tongue and, unlike sugar or aspartame, it doesn’t activate them at a neutral pH. Instead, in an environment of a low PH, such as a sour food, it activates the taste buds to alter your perception, he explained.

It causes no permanent change, wearing off in 30 minutes to an hour when it’s washed away by saliva.

In the 1970s, companies tried to commercialize the fruit extract in the United States as a sugar substitute product to turn unsweet foods sweet without adding calories.

Just as the Food and Drug Administration was about to approve it as an item generally recognized as safe, the agency reclassified it as a food additive. That meant it would take years of research before being marketable.

Investors dropped it soon after, Dr. Heaford said.

It’s now available in two forms:

  • The actual berry, which is highly perishable. This can have an effect on the tongue for up to 1 1/2 hours, he said.
  • Tablets of the protein are sold by some companies, including one called mBerry. The tablets produce an effect on the tongue for about 20 minutes.

The applications of the berry go further than flavor-tripping parties and getting children to eat those yucky vegetables.

It could bring relief to diabetics, allowing them to savor the taste of sweetness without the added calories, Dr. Heaford said. For instance, wheat bread “under the influence” of the berry has been said to taste like cake.

Also, oncologists are investigating whether it can help chemotherapy patients who often suffer from dulled or altered taste buds during treatment.

Randalynn Hajek, an oncology dietitian at Spectrum Health Cancer Center, said that while she has not tried the miracle berry with her chemotherapy patients, she’s not opposed.

Cancer treatment can wreak havoc on a patient’s taste buds. It can take away taste altogether, or it can even make things taste metallic, overly sweet, too bitter, too salty or just plain disgusting.

Thankfully, for most patients, the symptoms are resolved following treatment.

“If a patient wanted to try it, I wouldn’t argue with them,” Hajek said.

Hajek wants to try “flavor tripping” herself, while Dr. Heaford has stuck more to the research angle.

“People who hear about it are curious,” he said. “I have asked many people around the hospital if they would try it, and they all say, ‘Cool, I’d try it.’”