Monday, December 12, 2011

Miracle Berries, or The Food That Sugar Companies Hate

A stray comment on a Knoxville message board I frequent brought up something called "food tripping" which led me to be educated about "miracle berries", food trends, history, corporate and government conspiracy, and other oddities of one of life's necessities - eating.

I rather like to eat. I have to do it fairly often. So I was intrigued by the mention of "food tripping" parties which became popular in larger U.S. cities a few years back. Participants gather to eat/sample a range of food and drinks after they chew on some "miracle berries", which magically block sour and bitter receptors on the tongue and boost sweet receptors. Folks say it makes sour things like pickles and limes taste rich and fruity, beer tastes like a milkshake and the effects of the berry on taste buds last for about an hour.

These events of idle folks who seek rare, hipster-ish fads of the moment were featured in a story and video from the NYTimes. And the ingredient in these West African berries which causes (for reasons no one has, at this point, scientifically explicated) the tastebud change is called "miraculin", a name seemingly suited to snake-oil promotionalists. Let the YouTube videos parade past your eyes.

So I plundered into the Google machine for more information. And the ragged historical mystery of the berry soon became linked to corporate warfare dating back to the early 20th century. While African locals had eaten the berry for who knows how long to improve the taste of foods in their diet, it was a French explorer, Chevalier des Marchais, who found them in 1752 and brought them to Western tongues.

But it was an American named Robert Harvey who synthesized the protein in the berry to provide a new sweetener to the U.S. and fell prey to foul deeds:

"In the ’60s and the ’70s, an entrepreneur named Robert Harvey managed to raise tens of millions of dollars to create an all-natural alternative to sugar using the miracle fruit, and he managed to synthesize the active ingredient in this berry, which is a protein called “miraculin.”

"And companies, other corporations started getting interested. And Harvey was turning down offers in the billions for control — billions of dollars were being offered to him for this, because it looked like it was poised to become an all-natural alternative to sugar. And even the artificial sweetening industry was very concerned about this threat of this small red berry.

"But what happened was, that just as it was about to launch, Harvey’s company, his office was raided by industrial spies. His files were stolen. He got into high-speed car chases in the middle of the night. People were following him."

"And then it got banned just as it was about to launch. And he got a letter in 1974 from the FDA saying the miracle berry — miracle berry products are not allowed into the market in any form whatsoever. And so, he had to shut down the entire operation.

"I called the FDA several dozen times and had a very hard time getting anybody to be able to speak about it. But what I did learn was that it is considered a food additive, and it is not allowed to be used as a food additive. Now, the fresh berry itself is different. So they said the berry can be used, and that’s the USDA’s department. But the USDA doesn’t even know it exists. So it is in a kind of regulatory limbo."

But one could, if one desired, order up some of these pills via sites like ThinkGeek and Amazon.
Or you can order the berries themselves from the only supplier in the country, in Florida, at The are running a Christmas special.

Aside from benefits in replacing sugar, the berries have been found to be most helpful to diabetics and to folks undergoing chemotherapy, as it returns the tastebuds to working order.