The miracle fruit, or miracle berry, is a drupe from the small shrub Synsepalum dulcificum, belonging to the botanical family of Sapotaceae. It is native to a tropical region of West Africa but has now spread to many parts of the world. But why are the fruits of this plant considered miraculous? The answer is as simple as it is surprising. The fruits, which are almost tasteless, have the ability to make all acidic and bitter foods taste sweet when consumed. In essence, they act as a natural sweetener for our taste buds. The secret of these drupes lies in a substance they contain called miraculin.
In this article, we will introduce you to this unique tropical tree, explain how its active ingredients work, and reveal the secrets to its cultivation.
Characteristics of the miracle fruit and its tree
The miracle fruit tree is small in size and grows in the form of a bushy shrub. In its natural habitat, it can reach up to 5 m in height, but when cultivated, it usually doesn’t exceed 1.5 m.
- The leaves are simple, oval-shaped, tapering at the base. They have a smooth margin with a waxy underside. They grow in small clusters at the ends of branches and are bright green in color.
- The flowers are very small and white, from which the miracle fruits develop.
- The fruits are small, intensely red drupes about 2-3 cm long. The pulp is firm, reddish-white in color, and not very thick.
- The pulp surrounds a large black seed.
The tree grows very slowly and under the right conditions, starts producing drupes after 3-4 years. For comparison with more common species, it somewhat resembles a bay laurel plant trained as a small tree. While the fruit aesthetically looks like goji berries or cornelian cherries.
Properties of Miraculin
The secret of the miracle fruit lies in a glycoprotein called miraculin. This was first isolated by the Japanese scientist Kenzo Kuhihara in 1968. It’s not a sweet substance, in fact, the fruits are virtually tasteless. However, it has the ability to bind to our taste bud receptors, sweetening the taste of acidic or bitter foods. For instance, if you eat a Synsepalum dulcificum fruit and then immediately consume a lemon, the latter will taste sweet. This unique effect lasts for about an hour, with its intensity decreasing over time. During this period, our sense of taste is altered, and even very sour foods become pleasantly sweet. The country where the consumption of miracle fruits is highest is Japan. Here, through processing and transformation of the small drupes, tablets are produced. In the USA, during the 1970s, an extract of this fruit began to be marketed as a low-calorie sweetener, ideal for diabetic patients and those on low-calorie diets. Later, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified the product as a food additive and required further safety tests, leading to the discontinuation of experimentation.
In Europe, there were also authorization issues for commercial products as it was considered a novel food. In EU countries, to obtain authorization to market a novel food, there must be scientific documentation proving the product’s efficacy and, above all, its safety for food use. This hasn’t happened for miracle fruits. Therefore, it’s not possible to market these fruits or their extracts in Italy, even though they are perfectly legal and consumed without issues in the countries where they are grown.
How to cultivate the miracle fruit
The cultivation of miracle fruits might be possible even in our latitudes. The problem is that seeds are hard to find, and it’s virtually impossible to find seedlings. Beware of those selling seeds online for cultivation, as these seeds have a very low germination rate, which they lose just a few days after harvest. The plant would reproduce easily by cuttings, but as mentioned, it’s hard to find. It thrives in soils with a strongly acidic pH. The soil should also be moist, as the plant doesn’t tolerate drought. With these characteristics, the miracle fruit could easily be grown in pots, especially to protect it from winter frosts.