Early humans are known to have altered their consciousness with practices that some scientists believe sparked the dawn of modern human cognition. The controversial “Stoned Ape” hypothesis suggests that our ancestors may have “eaten their way to consciousness” when they ingested the naturally occurring psychedelic known as psilocybin.
As a species, we’ve been eating and drinking to intentionally alter our states of perception ever since. For generations, the indigenous peoples of the Congo, Nigeria, and Ghana have used the fruit (and leaves) of Synsepalum dulcificum, a shrub indigenous to West and Central Africa, in ethnomedicine. The taste-altering properties of this flavorless, bright-red berry—dubbed “the miracle fruit,” it’s about the size of a coffee bean—make for a fascinating sensory experience.
Ghanaians call the berries asaba and have eaten them throughout history, but the first documentation of the fruit in Western society wasn’t made until the early 18th century, when the Chevalier Reynaud des Marchais—a French cartographer, navigator, and slave ship captain who traveled extensively along the west coast of Africa—witnessed the berries being consumed by natives before eating a meal.
In Ghana, they are traditionally used to eliminate the need for sugar or any sweeteners in items like koko (a sour, spicy porridge), kenkey (fermented white cornmeal), and palm wine. During the past few decades, Ghanaian farmers have produced asaba commercially and sold it through fair trade agreements.
Asaba contains miraculin, a taste-modifying glycoprotein composed of glucosamine (31%), mannose (30%), fucose (22%), xylose (10%), and galactose (7%) that chemically is roughly 400,000 times sweeter than table sugar. When we eat asaba, the miraculin binds to specific sweet receptor cells in our taste buds, making them easily activated by acidic foods like vinegar, lemons, pickles, and mustard and enabling us to perceive these items as sweeter for about two hours. (Miraculin doesn’t, however, affect our perception of foods with a neutral pH.) For this taster, miraculin makes lemons taste like lemonade, goat cheese taste like cheesecake, and mild red wine vinegar taste like off-dry natural wine.
Beyond tricking our palates, the potential uses for miraculin, which was first synthesized in 1989, are many; it’s currently being studied by Japanese researchers to improve the flavor of less sour foods like tomatoes and strawberries.
Its applications in sensory therapy include aiding cancer patients
whose taste perception is skewed by chemotherapy, and there are anecdotal accounts that it has helped people suffering from parosmia as a result of contracting COVID-19.
Asaba currently has “novel food” status in the EU, a classification that means a given food does not have a history of widespread consumption in the region and therefore requires a safety assessment before it can be used in food products.
And while it’s technically legal in the U.S. to buy whole or powdered asaba berries and to sell them in a restaurant or cafe, distributing items that contain miraculin is still prohibited. In a questionable ruling in the 1970s, the FDA classified the miracle berry as a food additive, meaning it would need extensive testing to gain approval for its use in manufactured food products; decades later, that testing has
yet to be completed.