When Violet Beauregarde chewed the amazing gum in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, she felt like she was eating a three-course meal that culminated in a slice of delicious blueberry pie. Unfortunately, the gum also caused some adverse side effects: the spoiled little girl swelled like a balloon, and had to be rolled out of the room, her skin tinged an unpleasant indigo color for the indefinite future.
At that point in time, Willy Wonka’s taste-changing magic had not yet been approved to be sold on the market. Molecular gastronomists in the real world have pulled Wonka’s taste-changing magic out of the realm of fantasy. In fancy restaurants in New York City and elsewhere, chefs are preparing meals that change as you eat them. You can start out eating one meal and then, without removing or adding any food, suddenly feel as though you taste something entirely different.
The secret is a fruit called a miracle berry. Yes, that’s really what it is called! Its scientific name is Synsepalum dulcificum. The berry, which grows naturally in parts of West Africa, is red and about the size of an olive. It has no particular taste itself., but after it’s eaten, food that was previously sour suddenly tastes amazingly, pleasantly sweet: a sour lemon becomes like a sugar candy, balsamic vinegar becomes like caramel syrup.
Miracle berries // Shutterstock
The berry sounds magical, but it isn’t. It’s an example of biochemistry at work, albeit in a rather remarkable way. The berry’s properties are due to a single protein that it contains: miraculin. The protein, just like other proteins, is made out of a sequence of amino acids. It’s not especially complex or wonderful. Its astounding properties are due to what it binds to: receptors on the tongue.
Tongue cells have various kinds of receptors sticking out of their membranes. Each receptor activates the nervous system to convey a different category of taste to your brain, whether that’s bitter, sweet, sour, or something else. When you eat sugar, your tongue’s sweet receptors bind to sugar molecules. This activates a signal through the nervous system that lets your brain know it’s eating something sweet.
When miraculin reaches your tongue, like sugar, it binds tightly to your sweet receptors. But unlike sugar, it can stay secured there for up to an hour, without directly activating your sweet receptors. Rather, miraculin activates these receptos whenever it comes into contact with something with a low pH. The pH scale measures acidity; foods with a low pH are acidic and taste sour, like lemons, vinegar, Granny Smith apples, and wine. When the low-pH lemon juice reaches your tongue, which is covered in miraculin proteins bound to sweet receptors, the signals to your brain scream “sweet!”
// Image from the Suntory Foundation for Life Sciences
Of course, the fundamental nature of the lemon juice, vinegar, and other sour items remains unchanged; if you drink a gallon of lemon juice because it tastes like sugary nectar, you’ll still get a stomachache. It’s only the perception of the food that’s altered, not the food content itself. Nevertheless, using miraculin’s properties, chefs are making food into a game. After eating a tablet containing miraculin, a gin and tonic is converted to a sloe gin screw. Guinness beer suddenly tastes like chocolate milk; limes taste like key lime pie. Willy Wonka’s amazing taste-changing candy may never have hit the market or become widespread, but maybe someday miracle berries will.
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