TONY BERTAUSKI: Miracle fruit berries sweeten sour world

Miracle fruit contain a chemical that makes sour food taste sweet.

If broccoli is so good for us, why doesn't it taste like cake?

Digestion problems have forced me to alter my diet. Maybe I'm lactose intolerant or gluten intolerant, I don't know.

Now when I get the munchies, I reach for an apple instead of ice cream.

When our kids were young, we started them on fruits and vegetables, but it took only one taste of sugar to ruin our best-laid plans.

Evolution could help us out by changing the way we sense food. If our taste buds thought broccoli tasted like cake, our kids would be the healthiest beings in the universe. Turns out, there is something that can help. It's called miracle fruit.

Synsepalum dulcificum, or the miracle fruit plant, is a tropical plant that overwinters in Southern Florida. It produces red berries that contain a glycoprotein called miraculin that inhibits the taste buds' sour receptors, making lemons and other sour food taste sweet. The effect can last as long as a couple hours.

Forty years ago, there was a failed attempt to use miraculin to sweeten food without added calories. If you like conspiracies, some think the effort was sabotaged by the sugar industry that saw miraculin as a legitimate threat. Since that time, miracle fruit has gone relatively unknown.

Folks familiar with it throw tasting parties. Participants bring a variety of sour and bitter foods, such as radishes, pickles and grapefruit, to experience the peculiar change in taste.

Vinegar becomes the nectar of the gods. Strawberries taste like sugar cubes. Lemons taste like something from the county fair. Kiwi is just hard to explain. Everything tastes like something straight from Willie Wonka's menu.

Miraculin also has been used as a sweetening substitute for diabetics as well as a cure for the metallic taste that remains for some cancer patients going through chemotherapy.

The plant is difficult to find, but it can be ordered from websites such as http://toptropicals.com or www.stokestropicals.com.

It is evergreen and very slow growing. It could be years before plants started by seed produce fruit. Miracle fruit plants will have to be container-grown since they will not overwinter in the Lowcountry.

It can grow 5 feet tall but will start producing fruit when it reaches a foot in height. It prefers acidic soil with a mix of peat moss and fertilizers containing micronutrients.

It does best in partial shade, so supplemental light may not be necessary depending on your indoor conditions. It thrives in high humidity, but bring it indoors before the frost.

If you want to bypass the trouble of growing the plant, you can purchase the fruit. Freshly picked berries have a very short shelf-life of two or three days. However, tablets containing freeze-dried miraculin can last as long as 18 months.

The fruit or tablet works best when rolled around your tongue to coat as many taste buds as possible. Once it dissolves, let the taste-testing begin with a lemon.

Be warned: Miracle fruit ruins the taste of beer and wine.

Several online vendors carry a variety of products, such as www.miraclefruitman.com or www.miraclefruitusa.com.

One of my students is growing the plant. He reports that the growing conditions took some adjustments, but now he has healthy plants and a steady production of berries. Contact me if you would like to purchase fruit from him.

A miracle fruit party is fun. However, I'm not advocating it for children. Not because it's dangerous. After all, it's not a mind-altering substance. I just think kids should know what a turnip really tastes like.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at tony.bertauski@tridenttech.edu.