During a recent interview with Michelin-starred Chef Homaro Cantu on his upcoming Berrista coffeehouse in Chicago, I was presented with a Matrix-like decision: Take the red tablet he was offering or not. Up for an adventure (and also knowing what I was getting into), I gladly accepted the pill and let it dissolve on my tongue. This “miracle berry,” derived from a berry originally found in West Africa, inhibits certain taste receptors, making sour foods taste sweet. These berries have been in the market for several years. Cantu, a longtime advocate, even wrote a miracle-berry cookbook last year. Now, he’s putting his business money where his mouth is with Berrista, going so far as to add an indoor miracle-berry orchard in the basement of his new restaurant space.
“It’s about alternatives,” says Cantu. “[Guests can] have the sugar version or the Berrista version,” meaning they can opt for food made with sugar or go with the sugar-free miracle-berry option. Doughnuts cooked by a doughnut robot will be made with and without sugar, with the sugar-free ones coming in at just under 100 calories. Instead of traditional syrup on the chicken-and-waffle sandwich, the miracle-berry version uses water that’s flavored with a hint of vanilla and aged in a maple barrel. Sodas, smoothies and other offerings will get the same calorie-reducing treatment.
Eager to convince me that the berry works, I was given lemons, sugarless doughnuts, carbonated fruit and plain yogurt with citrus—all of which tasted like dessert. The soda, a simple combination of fruit juice and carbonated water, tasted just like the sugar-filled brands. Yet, all of what I tried fell into the better-for-you category. So this begs the question: Is this the next wave of healthy eating?
Anxious to share my findings with the Restaurant Business team, Chef Cantu gave me a packet of these tablets to bring back to the office. Excited by the prospect of being on the early side to try these taste-changing tabs, I scrounged up whatever citrus I found in my fridge at home and brought it into work the next day.
We gathered in a circle, daring each other to be the first to take the tablet. Once we did, we were not disappointed. “Wow,” “oh man,” “no way,” and other phrases of disbelief came flying out of mouths after the first bite into a lemon. We were all most certainly on a flavor trip; the citrus fruits no longer tasted as we expected.
But not everyone tasted the same drastic changes. Everyone agreed that the miracle berry gave those sour foods a sweet taste, but for some, the sugary flavor was far less extreme. For the majority (those that did taste the full impact), lemon wedges tasted like lemonade and limes tasted like sweet oranges. The kumquats had a candied flavor as opposed to the traditional tart. The acidity of the citrus hits the lips, and some still got a hint of sour in the back of their mouths, but for the most part, it worked.
While the idea of taking a tablet to make food taste better seems like some next-gen idea from an evil food scientist, there’s a chance it’ll catch on. After all, with the ever-present concern for healthy eating, it’s an all-natural, chemical-free solution for those looking to cut down on the sugar in their diets. It’s made from fruit, so clean-label seekers will be pleased. So if I can eat lowfat yogurt with lemon juice that tastes like that high-fat cheesecake I love, count me in.