A tradition that began with the natives of West Africa to sweeten their traditionally bland or bitter meals, “flavor tripping” has recently become a new trend that is gaining popularity in social scenes. On Mar. 28, intrigued students flooded Risley Hall to experience a night of sensory overload at Cornell Underground’s Flavor Tripping event.
Upon entering, each student was given the miracle berry, Synsepalum dulcificum, and proceeded through a series of lavishly decorated rooms reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. In each room, “trippers” were presented with a variety of food ranging from citrus-sour to vinegar-bar-bitter, but instead the food tasted sugary sweet.
“There was tons of citrus fruit on little skewers from the walls, and tasting it was like eating pure sugar,” Alexis Mychajliw ’12 said of her experience with the berry.
However, the effect proved to vary from tripper to tripper. “I went with a friend, for whom apparently the berry was more effective than it was one me” Mychajliw said. “I found this out, sadly, after downing a cup of vinegar only to find that it was not sweet, as he said it tasted, but tasted to me like vinegar ... which was unpleasant.”
Prof. Harry Lawless, food science, conducted research on S. dulcificum as an undergraduate at Yale University in 1973 with Prof. Linda Bartoshuk. “Miracle fruit contains a protein (a glycoprotein with sugar residues) that binds to the tongue surface for about a half an hour. When any acidic food or beverage (pH below 7) is tasted, the acidic food or beverage now tastes like a sweet/sour mixture,” Lawless explained. However, much of the chemistry behind the miracle fruit’s effect remains unknown.
While the phrase “flavor tripping” may imply that the fruit’s effect is drug-induced, the berry is entirely safe unless the consumer has an allergy to it. The fruit, in fact, has no effect on the brain’s neurochemistry.
This barrier between sensation and perception has intrigued neurobiologists. Sensation is defined as the collection of sensory information from stimuli by nerves. On the other hand, perception is how the brain and central nervous system interprets the information collected.
All drugs affect the brain’s neurochemistry by altering neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that deliver signals throughout the central nervous system. Trip-inducing, or hallucinogenic, drugs specifically affect serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter responsible for controlling mood. For example, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), a hallucinogenic drug derived from grain fungus, mimics serotonin and binds to serotonin receptors in the brain, inducing an altered level of perceived serotonin. As a result, this alters how the brain interprets sensory stimuli and, therefore, perception.
On the other hand, the proteins in S. dulcificum bind to and change the shape of tastebuds. This then alters what sensory information is collected by the taste buds and returned to the brain. Since the miracle fruit’s effect is on the nerves and the data they collect, S. dulcificum has no direct effect on neurotransmitters or any other aspect of neurobiology. The effect of miracle berry is, therefore, on the body’s sensation of taste.
While sensation and perception are well defined as two different functions that are crucial to the body’s ability to sense and respond to its environment, the exact point at which sensation ends and perception begins is still largely debated.
Even though the miracle berry is deemed safe, the FDA forced Miralin Corp., a company trying to commercialize the extracted protein as a common sweetener, out of business for unknown reasons. Miracle berries can still be purchased online in berry or tablet form for people to experience their own private, at-home “flavor tripping” experience.