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Food Detective: Flavor tripping on miracle fruit

MoWest Fultoffers tasting menu built around miracle fruit  West African berry thmakes sour foods taste sweet.

Moto on West Fulton offers a tasting menu built around miracle fruit, a West African berry that makes sour foods taste sweet.

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Updated: July 15, 2011 12:58PM

In his kitchen at moto, 945 W. Fulton, chef Homaro Cantu held out a spoonful of white powder flecked with bits of red.

“Eat this,” he said, smiling in a way that suggested it was not likely to harm me. After dutifully downing the spoonful, my tongue seemed coated with a slightly slippery, pasty patina.

“Now suck this,” said Cantu, still smiling and holding out a bright yellow slice of lemon.

I bit into the lemon. It was remarkably sweet, without a touch of the expected sourness.

Now drink this,” said Cantu, popping a can of seltzer water. It tasted just like a sweet, lemony soft drink.

The powdered appetizer I’d eaten was miracle fruit, a small, red West African berry that tricks the tongue into sensing sweetness in almost anything. Up to a half hour or more after eating miracle fruit, much of what you taste will seem sweet.

Legend has it some entrepreneurs in the 1970s wanted to use miracle fruit to make foods seem sweeter for diabetics, so they sought approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Conspiracy theorists contend that those efforts were thwarted by sugar industry insiders, who worked with the FDA to make it difficult to bring this low-calorie sweetness enhancer to market.

Miracle fruit raises a fundamental question: Is it smart to fool Mother Nature? If miracle fruit makes it possible to drink vinegar and hot mustard cocktails and eat raw brussels sprouts dripping with Tabasco (and it does make it possible to eat those things without the usual discomfort), should you?

Well, you probably shouldn’t make a habit of that kind of extreme gastronomy, but on rare dining occasions, eating miracle fruit is probably one of the most fun games you can play with your mouth.

“Flavor tripping” occurs nightly at moto and Cantu’s neighborhing restaurant iNG. This is good-natured chicanery in the great American tradition of P.T. Barnum: You want to be tricked, so you play along, getting harmless thrills along the way.

After being “dosed” with miracle fruit, my dining companions and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we were tasting. Because taste, not smell, is rewired with miracle fruit, we found we could recalibrate our sense of a food’s “real” taste by smelling it. Sniffing a lime, for instance, recalls its usual flavor, though biting into it after eating miracle fruit produces the perception of unnatural sweetness.

It’s not accurate to say that miracle fruit powder makes food taste better. It doesn’t improve flavor — it actually shrinks the flavor spectrum. But it does offer the diner a rare opportunity to play with flavors, which is pretty much what chefs do every time they step into the kitchen.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer, Chicago Public Radio contributor and founder/moderator of culinary chat site E-mail

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