18 March 2011

Miracle Berry!

The Biological Basis of Behavior [BBB] Society is a club at Penn. During New Student Orientation, I signed up for literally over 20 clubs, and I've been ignoring most of the club emails, since I actually only go to 3-4 on a regular basis. I recently got an email about a miracle berry tasting event with lecture from the BBB Society, and now that I've gone, I've realised that I really DO want to do taste research in the future (taste research or thyroid research?! I like both...). It was actually really helpful, too, because now I feel more obligated to learn about G-protein coupled receptors, which will be on my exam on Thursday (and... I should be studying for that).

Dr. Kaplan gave us the lecture on the miracle berry (Synsepalum dulcificum), and he teaches BBB 109 here. I'm actually considering taking the course, since it seems very interesting and he appears to remember all his students. So, miracle berry is a fruit from a tropical area, and contains a protein called miraculin (what a coincidence!). Miraculin is a protein that can bind to the taste receptor for sweetness on our tongue, but it doesn't actually bind to the "receptor" part of the receptor when you eat the berry. Only when there is an intake of acidic foods does the protein change its conformation and bind to the taste receptor. So, when you eat miracle berries, all you're doing is sticking miraculin onto your taste receptors for sweetness. Then, with the introduction of acid (protons!!!), the miraculin changes conformation and you get the sensation of sweetness without actually eating anything sweet.

This is a recurring theme, because last night I watched The Matrix for the first time in my life, and this morning I was reading about the "brain in a vat" idea, and now...I get the perception of sweetness but I'm actually just ingesting lemon juice. What is real, then? Everything is just a electric/chemical/mechanic reaction, right?
So, I know I was supposed to eat half of the food on the plate right before eating the miracle berry, but I decided to just eat the berry, since I knew "what all that stuff tastes like already" (but I was wrong. I think I was confused in some instances).
I will now go through a list of the foods I ate, and my perception of them.

1. Miracle berry: This small berry smelled like an olive. I think this may be because there were 2 olives sitting on the plate in front of me, but that was my first impression. The skin was thick and the pulp was scant and stuck readily to the pip. Texture-wise, it was like eating a cherry that didn't have much pulp, and it wasn't as juicy. The skin had the texture of grape skin or tomato skin, and the flesh was sticky, and not juicy like grape flesh. The flesh itself was tasteless, although I think it was a bit sweet due to the placebo effect. We were instructed to keep the berry in our mouth for about a minute. I kept the seed and I hope that I can maybe grow my own miracle berry tree, although I don't have any soil.

2. Lemon: HUGE confusion in my brain. The first drops of lemon juice in my mouth were typical; they were sour. SUDDENLY, they started to taste sweet. I'm not kidding. There was this prickling feeling, followed by sweetness and I gasped in surprise!! (I started blabbing to the 3 other people at my table, who are strangers with whom I made some small-talk before the lecture, about how the lemon tasted sweet and they thought I was kidding.) What I was consuming tasted exactly like Lemonheads candy. EXACTLY like Lemonheads candy = an initial sour note, followed by sweetness, then sour and sweet mingled in lemon-y harmony. This was the most efficacious food from the plate that was transformed by miraculin. I finished one lemon segment, and it tasted purely like Lemonheads candy. The sourness was present, but so was the sweetness. After I tried all the other foods, I tried the second segment of lemon just to see how much of the miraculin I had swallowed down already (because, for some reason, miraculin has a higher affinity for taste buds than do other taste proteins. I mean, after we swallow some candy, after a short while, the sweet taste in our mouth disappears. This differs from bitter foods, like coffee, where after swallowing coffee, one can taste bitterness for at least another minute). This time, it took longer for the sweetness to kick in, and the sweetness wasn't as pronounced as it had been earlier.

3. Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips: This tasted like a salt and vinegar potato chip. It's funny what packaging does to people; the person next to me commented that she had no idea what the flavour was. I wonder: if we switched the packaging for different flavours of potato chips, would people be able to tell? Do we base flavours of things on the taste, or on what the package CLAIMS the flavour is? Anyway, I do not think that the vinegar (acid) tasted any sweeter, and if it did, it may be just my amylase breaking down the starch in the potato. In other words, miraculin doesn't seem to work well for chips.

4. Pickle: The pickle tasted like a pickle. It did not taste sweet. It did not taste that sour. It tasted like a pickle. Perhaps (for me?), miraculin only works for plainly-super-sour food items. Pickles are sour, but their sourness is weak. Diluted with water.

5. Chocolate chips and grapefruit: Miraculin doesn't actually enhance the sweetness of foods that are already sweet. I suppose the point of having sweet foods was to demonstrate this to us. Actually, I think that the grapefruit was there as a "sour" product (like the lemon), but, like most commercially-produced grapefruits, this one was sweet to begin with. So, it and the chocolate chips tasted rather normal to me, and they were the source of Calories to keep me energised before my Bio review session and frisbee later on in my day.

6. Olives: I don't like olives so I didn't eat these. Olives aren't sour though. They're just saturated with salt and have that olive flavour that I dislike.

7. V8 (the red liquid): Now, the last time I had tried V8 was 4 years ago, when my parents thought that buying a bulk pack from Costco was a good idea. Actually, my dad likes to drink V8 in the summer, so we keep buying it every year. I personally am indifferent to it; it's a bit too sour for my liking and I would much rather eat the actual vegetables (more time spent chewing and tasting food = happier me!). With miraculin, I really couldn't taste anything sour about the juice. It just tasted like...sweet tomato juice. I don't think that I like this sweetened version of V8 though, because I'm not really used to eating sweet tomatoes (I've tried sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar, before, as a salad-ish platter, and it was an interesting experience but I didn't fall in love with it).

8. Not-Super-Strong Coffee: No difference in taste was detected, although a person next to me claimed that the coffee tasted creamier. I did drink all the coffee though, because it's kept me awake for the past 7 hours. Remember; miraculin is supposed to work in the presence of protons. Technically, then, it should have made the coffee taste a bit sweet because coffee is acidic.

So there we are: instead of going to Monell's tasting event for the Philly Science Fair (I had a chem exam today that coincided with it, unfortunately), I got to taste a miracle berry and consume a bunch of pseudo-Lemonheads for about 0 Calories, and eat other foods with my tongue saturated with miraculin.

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