The Miracle Berry

By Joshua Jay - Sunday, February 28, 2021

When I opened my show, Six Impossible Things, in New York two years ago, we had ambitious plans on how to make a magic show as immersive as possible. Some of those ideas worked very well. Others, ahem, didn’t.

One idea I had high hopes for was doing something magical with people’s palettes. During the intermission of the show, we would guide people through a magical tasting: they would taste a drink that would be wickedly sour--almost inedible. Then we would ask them to ingest a “miracle berry” and then drink the same substance: thanks to the properties of the berry, the same sour drink would now taste sweet and delicious.

The whole segment was a huge hassle and needed to be cut. It was hard to manage people, and I needed the time to reset the second half, so it ended up being hard to do. And miracle berries only work for about 70% of the people. The rest just end up...confused.

But, when it worked, it was REALLY cool. Here was the article that I wrote about this segment, which was eventually cut from the show and the program:


It’s almost too perfect.

The African fruit called a “miracle” berry is a real thing, and the name alone makes it a good fit for a magic show intermission. The main component in miracle fruit is miraculin—that’s the scientific name. But this miracle berry does a trick of its own on our taste buds.

The miracle berry makes sour things taste sweet. If you’re anything like me, the thought of sucking on a lemon makes me squint, and then salivate. It’s intolerably sour, at least to me. But after ingesting the miracle berry, lemons become candy. The fruit transforms in our mouths into a sweet, pulpy candy bar, with a mild, smooth, High-C taste. From lemons. Any sour, bitter, and even spicy food becomes oddly sweet. And the juxtaposition of how it looks to how it tastes is as mind-bending as a magic trick.

So how does this trick work? For once, I can tell you.

The miracle berry (Synsepalum dulcificum) originates in West Africa, and the key ingredient, miraculin, is responsible for some sleight-of-tongue that is completely unique in the world of plant-based food.

Our tongues are full of taste buds, which, in turn, have receptors. There are two families of receptors on our tongues: sweet and bitter. When we eat a pretzel, the bitter receptors respond to the salt and bread components, and we experience the taste of a pretzel. When we pop a blueberry, the sweet receptors activate the sweet taste in our brains.

Miraculin scrambles our tongue’s ability to decide whether something is sweet or bitter. Instead, our sweet receptors are activated on every food we ingest, giving sour foods a sweet taste, and sweet foods a radioactive-sweet boost.

I have treated this intermission the way I treat any piece in my show: with every sensory detail possible. I uncovered data from the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University, wherein scientists proved that high-frequency sounds cause foods to be perceived as sweeter, while low-frequency sounds cause users to perceive foods as more bitter. So while the miracle fruit was playing a trick on your tongue, the music I chose for the intermission, I hope, played a trick on your mind.

Shakespeare foretold the connection between magic and food in The Winter’s Tale: “If this be magic,” he wrote, “let it be an art as lawful as eating.”

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