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‘Flavour-tripping’ miracle fruit could replace sugar


By: Michelle Monteiro, Staff Writer

With obesity a rising concern in the world, a miracle fruit contains a protein that could be introduced into the food market as a sugar replacement. But can this berry improve our sugary and fatty filled diets?

KEY POINTS AT A GLANCE:

1. Food research is focused on developing a sugar-free dessert and artificial flavouring that tastes as good as the real thing.
2. Homaro Cantu proposes that miraculin will eliminate sugar from our diets.
3. Cantu has attempted for many years to find a way to incorporate the berry powder in foods, to give people their sweet fix.

When given the opportunity to eat excessively, we will. This proves to be a problem as such a desirable diet consists mostly of sugars and fats. With obesity levels on the rise, the values of eating healthy have become almost underrated.

Once considered a problem only for the high-income, obesity is now widespread and a rising issue for those in low- and middle-income countries particularly in urban settings. Global obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980. According to the World Health Organization, 65 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where obesity kills more people than those who suffer from being underweight. As of 2012, 40 million children under the age of 5 were classified as being either overweight or obese.

With these dismal statistics, food research is focusing on developing a dessert free of sugar and artificial flavouring that tastes as good as the real thing. The owner of a coffee shop, Berrista Coffee, in downtown Chicago, has found the potential answer.

Homaro Cantu, the owner of Berrista Coffee, proposes that the solution to eliminate sugar from our diets comes in the form of a protein known as miraculin. One of the few “naturally-occurring molecules in the world,” the protein is a taste-modifier, found in the berries of a West African plant known as Synsepalum dulcificum.

According to research into the biological mechanisms of protein conducted over the past decade, the miraculin in the berry attaches to sweet taste receptors on the tongue, similar to sugar and artificial sweeteners, but “far more strongly.” Acid in sour foods creates a chemical reaction that causes the miraculin to distort the shape of the receptors, which in turn makes the receptors so sensitive that the sweet signals they send to the brain overpower the sour ones.

Currently used at high-end restaurants, customers who have eaten the berry experience a “flavour trip” as “sour turns to sweet in their mouths until the miraculin dislodges from their tongues.”

It is therefore believed that eating the berry, also known as the miracle fruit, before eating a sugar-free dessert will provide one with a sweet fix. Homaro Cantu, using this knowledge, is attempting to find a way to incorporate the berry powder into foods so it has the same effect. His plan is to develop a heat-stable form of the miraculin in order to cook with it, since cooling and heating the protein activates it.

Referring to the success of his project, Cantu says that “the miraculin will only latch onto your taste receptors for a small amount of time, just enough for you to enjoy the food that’s in your mouth.”

However, the idea of introducing the miracle berry into food as a sugar replacement will not appear in food markets anytime soon. There are many challenges to overcome.

Firstly, the Food and Drug Administration’s current rules is against the idea. As the FDA ruling stands, restaurants and coffee shops can distribute the berry to customers but any food products containing the berry must be sold outside the United States.

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