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 five 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.
Homaro Cantu, the owner of a coffee shop, Berrista Coffee, in downtown Chicago, has found the potential answer. Cantu 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.
An acid trip for your tongue
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.
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, “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.
Secondly, finances are an issue. According to Canadian author, Adam Gollner, anyone wanting to challenge the FDA ruling, “Just needs to have the financing and patience to see it through.”
Cantu hopes to form partnerships with junk food giants to craft healthier food products. However, replacing sugar with miraculin appears to be an unattractive method, due to cost reasons. Ten grams of miracle fruit powder could cost as much as $30 because it takes approximately four years for a miracle plant to grow and only one out of four will bear the fruit. Some have been seeking to lower the price through bioengineering.
Cantu has an alternative method, however. He plans to set up large indoor farms and grow the berry himself in-house, and with “lighting, temperature and monitoring technology becoming cheaper," he says he can develop products that would sell at prices equivalent to those in supermarkets. With further testing and research, perhaps our futures will entail healthier diets and human beings.
With obesity a rising concern in the world, a miracle fruit containing miraculin could be introduced into the food market as a safe sugar replacement. If executed on a large scale, this berry can put our sugary and fatty filled diets on a diet of their own.