Was this natural sweetener ‘Miracle Berry’ nobbled?

May 5, 2008 by  
Filed under featured, Food & Nutrition, Health

Regular readers of this newsletter will know that I am not a fan of artificial sweeteners. Partly on taste grounds, and mostly on well-established health risks but the belief has always been that there wasn’t anything better. It was Tom Mangold, speaking on Radio 4, who alerted me to the fact that actually there was, so in case you didn’t catch the programme here’s the gist of it.

In the 1970′s, Robert Harvey, an American entrepreneur,c arrying out research in his New England laboratory when he came across a plant called Synsepalum dulcificum. This is a wild, small, red, berry grown in West Africa, which, when chewed lilterally turns sour food and drink sweet. Finally, here was something that had the potential to be a safe, non-fattening sugar substitute and an alternative to what were then the new-to-the-market artificial, chemical, sweeteners. In early trials it received a warm reception among diabetics who were able to enjoy sweet flavours without worrying about their sugar intake and from dieters anxious to avoid high-calorie desserts.

Although the berry itself is not sweet, it contains an active glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, called miraculin. When the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue’s taste buds, causing changes to how they taste – in particular bitter and sour foods like lemons and limes will taste sweet after chewing a berry and this effect lasts up to two hours.

Harvey and his colleagues were able to process the berry’s ‘miracle’ ingredient to make it marketable and they devised a test. They coated some sugarless ice lollies with the berry process and mixed them up with ordinary, sugared lollies and gave them out in a Boston playground. The result was that all the kids preferred the Miracle Berry lollies to the sugared ones, showing that the berry is a taste enhancer and, with no sugar present, the lollies didn’t rot the teeth and contained no calories. “It was junk food without the junk,” as Harvey said, and he realised he was sitting on a billion dollar project that could have had profound implications for the epidemic of obesity in the US, and the developed Western world.

He got huge backing including Barclays Bank and the Prudential and soon had hundreds of thousands of miracle berry plants growing in Jamaica. The American Federal Drugs Administration seemed to be ok with the product and then in 1973 his offices were burgled and the data files ransacked. It was clearly a case of professional ‘industrial espionage’ and was followed in 1974, on the eve of the product launch, by another body blow. The FDA, which had previously indicated it would clear the product for use, now reclassified the berry as an additive, and like any artificial ingredient, it would now have to submit to years of testing for safety and efficacy. They immediately ordered all Miracle Berry products to be withdrawn at once.

Conspiracy theorists may conclude that there was a lot at stake for the fledgling artificial sweetener industry and too much money at stake to risk an all-natural product taking over a billion dollar market. We will never know, but if you want to try it for yourself the berries are available to buy on the internet and even on ebay. There is also an informative UK website, www.miraclefruit.co.uk who have been overwhelmed with orders since the programme went out – so finally the berry’s time may have come. It has already done so in Japan where it is being sold in tablet form to aid dieters.