Sweet and sour tale of the miracle berry
Who nobbled the wholesome berry that could have replaced artificial sweeteners, asks Tom Mangold
Lemons that taste like sugared meringues? Vinegar that tastes like cool-aid? Sweet cheese? It's true - I've tasted them all. It just needed a small berry popped into my mouth, rolled around for about a minute, and my taste buds went into reverse. Anything sour tasted sweet. No wonder they call it the Miracle Berry. And believe me, it's much much more than a party trick.
The story begins thirty years ago with Robert Harvey, an American entrepreneur who rediscovered Synsepalum dulcificum, a wild berry grown in West Africa, which, when properly processed, turns sour food and drink sweet, and, even more significantly, high-calorie sweetened junk foods into zero-calorie tasty treats.
It was Harvey, working away in his New England laboratories in the early Seventies, who first realised that here was something which had the potential to be a safe non-fattening sugar substitute and an alternative to the (then) new artificial sweeteners, those chemical mixes just beginning to make their mark on the food and drink industry.
All the kids preferred the Miracle Berry lollies to the sugared ones
Harvey and his colleagues were able to process the berry's 'miracle' ingredient to make it marketable. So his company conducted their first practical miracle berry trial. They coated some sugarless ice lollies with the berry process. Then they took sugar-coated ice lollies, mixed the two brands up and handed them out to schoolchildren in a Boston playground. Result? All the kids preferred the Miracle Berry lollies to the sugared ones, not only making the key marketing point but also showing that the berry is a taste enhancer.
Harvey was ecstatic: "The kids licked the outside of the lolly thus making the unsugared inside taste sweet. It didn't rot the teeth and there were no calories. It was junk food without the junk."
Harvey was sitting on a billion dollar project - one that could have had profound implications not only for the epidemic of obesity in the US, but the pandemic throughout the developed Western world.
Reynolds Metal (who make the aluminium wrappings for lollies and ice creams) came on board, Barclays Bank came on board, so did the mighty Prudential. Harvey had hundreds of thousands of miracle berry plants growing in Jamaica. The American Federal Drugs Administration took a benign view of the product
And then it got nasty. In the autumn of 1973 Harvey's offices were burgled and the precious files ransacked.
"This was a professional job." Harvey recalls. "When the police arrived we discovered that none of the building's locks had been smashed or broken."
Then the real bombshell. In 1974, the FDA changed its mind about the Miracle Berry product on the very eve of the product launch in drug stores across the whole of the Eastern seaboard. In the most brutal way, the FDA ordered all the products to be withdrawn at once. In a complete headstand, the FDA, which had indicated it would clear the product for use, now reclassified the berry as an additive, and like any artificial ingredient, it would now have to submit to years of testing for safety and efficacy.
Who was behind all that? We may never know, but suspicions abound. Harvey's project ended in near bankruptcy. And today, the Miracle Berry remains a mere party trick for those who can buy it mail order.
Tom Mangold presents The Miracle Berry on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 28 April at 9pm ·
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