Miracle berries: the artificial sweetener that never was

The small, red berries of the _Richadella dulcifica_ plant are not very sweet. In fact, miraculin, the main chemical found in the berry's flesh tastes like, well, nothing. But after eating these berries, people's taste buds embark on an hour-long wild ride, so that any sour foods they eat -- even lemons -- will taste sweeter than candy. Quite trippy.

A new paper published in PNAS describes how this process works: miraculin binds to receptors in the tongue, partially blocking the taste buds that identify sweet foods under normal conditions. But if something acidic, like the juice from a sour lemon, interacts with miraculin, the molecule shape-shifts, and suddenly, the sweet taste receptors are kicked into high gear. Although the same lemons would taste sour to anyone else, miraculin makes them taste sweet.

As interesting as the finding may be, the backstory is even better.

In the 1960s, biomedical scientist Robert Harvey first reported these miracle berries, as they're called, which locals in west Africa had eaten for centuries. Quickly realizing the potential these fruits might have for making bad-tasting, good-for-you foods more palatable, as well as the role this type of artificial sweetener might play on diseases like diabetes, Harvey organized a new venture, the Miralin Company, to bring the additive to market, complete with the financial backing of heavy-hitter investors like Reynolds Metals, Barclays and Prudential.

Initial talks with the FDA went well, Harvey reported. But the night before the company's launch in 1974, the FDA got cold feet. The food was an additive, the government agency now decried, and in order to sell their product, Harvey would have to run the miracle berries through many more years of expensive testing. The new directives proved too extensive for the fledgling company to bear.

But as Harvey prepared to shelve his idea, he realized he was not the only one watching Miralin's door's close. As he told the BBC:

A few weeks later, things turned sour. A car was spotted driving back and forwards past Miralin's offices, slowing down as someone took photographs of the building. Then, late one night, Harvey was followed as he drove home. "I sped up, then he sped up. I pulled into this dirt access road and turned off my lights and the other car went past the end of the road at a very high speed. Clearly I was being monitored. I honestly believe that we were done in by some industrial interest that did not want to see us survive because we were a threat. Somebody influenced somebody in the FDA to cause the regulatory action that was taken against us.

Whether Harvey was in fact being tailed by Big Sugar, or just a disgruntled ex-lab mate -- who knows. But I'm willing to bet the farm that these new findings have tickled the sweet tooth of a commercial entity somewhere out there, in one way or another.

Photo via Flickr /

Brian Mossop is currently the Community Editor at Wired, where he works across the brand, both magazine and website, to build and maintain strong social communities. Brian received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lafayette College, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2006. His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience at UCSF and Genentech.

Brian has written about science for Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Scientific American MIND, and elsewhere. He primarily cover topics on neuroscience, development, behavior change, and health.

Contact Brian at brian.mossop@gmail.com, on Twitter (@bmossop), or visit his personal website.