by CHAVA dumas
For years it lay undiscovered in the plains of Africa — a fantastical fruit with little taste of its own, but with the power to transform sour flavors into sweet. This modest red berry’s healing properties have astounding applications, though few of us have ever heard about it. It can help chemotherapy patients taste again, and can help everyone sustain a healthy lifestyle.
When 19-year-old Chedva was undergoing radiation treatment on her neck to help cure her cancer, her saliva glands dried up. And chemotherapy made everything she ate taste metallic, sour, bitter — or have no taste at all.
“Chemotherapy is designed to kill fast-growing cells. So yes, it’s pretty obvious to everyone when we lose our hair, that hair is made of fast-growing cells, but no one thinks about the impact on our fast-growing taste buds inside our mouths,” Chedva shared. “For me, food tastes very different, or strange, or it doesn’t have a taste!
“This may not sound so dramatic or big or terrible,” she continued, “compared to everything else we are going through, but my oncologist kindly emphasized the importance of being well nourished. She explained that part of successful treatment and recovery from cancer was for me to eat a healthy diet. I was supposed to eat food that strengthens the body and avoid anything that depletes me of energy. She gave me a list of foods to avoid, the ones that are known to weaken our bodies, and a list of lots of foods that strengthen us.
“But … I didn’t want to eat anything when everything was so tasteless. I was also nauseous as well. So I wasn’t eating enough, and I was losing weight. I felt so weak … I had no koach. … Not having energy made me feel depressed, and even though I knew it wasn’t just from chemotherapy and radiation treatment … it wasn’t just because I was sick … knowing this didn’t help me eat more. The combination of everything made food simply repulsive. …”
Chedva was worried about a lot of things: her diagnosis, prognosis, treatment options, survival statistics, her future. It was a scary time, and food seemed so insignificant. It was the last thing she wanted to focus on, no matter how vital to her well-being food really was.
For chemotherapy patients like Chedva, when loss of taste makes many foods intolerable, it becomes more difficult to eat properly. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment can also cause the painful inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membranes lining the digestive tract, particularly in the mouth. This debilitating complication can also contribute to weight loss and malnourishment, as patients find it difficult to eat and drink.
Medical caregivers have always tried to come up with creative ideas to overcome these problems. For years, the usual advice for lessening the negative impact of the dry mouth caused by upper-body radiation treatment was to chew lemon-flavored gum to help promote saliva production. To help prevent the mouth ulcers caused by chemotherapy, which negatively impacts a patient’s ability to eat and swallow food, the standard suggestion is to suck on ice cubes while chemotherapy is being administered. These methods are not always very effective, but at least they provide distraction!
Based on numerous oncological studies that have established the association between poor nutrition and poor patient outcome, the Medical College of Virginia and the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System say that developing strategies for improving nutritional status could be of critical importance for improving patient quality of life.
Introducing the Berry
Growing on a small shrub-like tree, the fruit Synsepalum dulcificum (also known as the miracle berry, miracle fruit, miraculous berry and sweet berry) is a plant native to Ghana, in West Africa, where it is called agbayun, taami, asaa or ledidi. It’s been used for centuries by knowledgeable native West Africans who chewed the fruit’s pulp to sweeten their diet. One of the earliest recorded accounts of miracle berry use was written by European explorer Chevalier des Marchais, around 1725, when he traveled to West Africa in search of new fruits and spices. Once there, he discovered tribes that were regularly eating miracle berries before they ate their traditional, though dry and bland, dishes of cornbread and oatmeal. After chewing a berry, their meals then tasted sweet and flavorful.
It isn’t as though this berry, in itself, has any remarkable taste. It has a mild tang and low sugar content, but its unique effect on our taste buds is extraordinary.
Chewing the berry and having the pulp in our mouths temporarily — remarkably — changes normally sour, bitter, and bland foods to taste super sweet.
How does this happen? Research on Synsepalum dulcificum has found that the fruit contains a glycoprotein called “miraculin” that binds to our tongue’s taste buds. The acid in sour foods sparks a chemical reaction that causes miraculin to temporarily change the shape of these taste receptors, enhancing them and making them so sensitive that our brains receive a sweet signal much more powerful than the sour ones. This results in any acidic, bitter or sour food tasting sweet for 30 to 90 minutes.
Temporarily masking the metallic taste caused by certain chemotherapy drugs (not all), gives people a chance to enjoy normal food again. And if food tastes good, there is a much greater chance that people can eat properly, gain strength, and feel much better.
We aren’t talking about curing cancer with a miracle berry, but greatly enhancing one’s ability to cope with necessary life-saving treatment.
Dr. Cusnir, an oncologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, Florida, began a study on the effect of miracle berries, and in 2009 filed an investigational new drug application with the FDA. Since joining Mount Sinai Medical Center in 2003, Dr. Cusnir has been active in clinical trials and published multiple articles. Most recently, Dr. Cusnir completed a two-year fellowship in integrative medicine. He has been incorporating the techniques he learned into his general clinical practice and developing novel clinical trials of integrative medicine for oncology patients.
“If patients become malnourished, they lose their resistance and their organs can suffer,” he wrote in “Treatment of Taste Alterations in Chemotherapy Patients Using the ‘Miracle Fruit’: Preliminary analysis of a pilot study” (American Society of Clinical Oncology, 2010). He concluded: “Miracle Fruit is safe for use in patients undergoing chemotherapy. In our preliminary analysis, the response to the miracle fruit appears encouraging.”
Did you see an increase in the well-being of cancer patients who used the berry during treatment, and was there a correlation with longer life?
In the study, we did explore the quality of life. The results showed that the quality of life was improved if taste improved. We didn’t examine the impact on length of life because the study was done only over a seven-week interval.
What other dietary and lifestyle recommendations would you include for people to enhance their quality of life and/or their longevity?
This is a question that is quite lengthy to answer but in general, for cancer patients, there are several studies that have shown that a healthy diet does make a difference in length of life even after a diagnosis of cancer. I have been invited to give lectures on how we can aid in treating cancer at the grocery store by eating more fruits and vegetables and avoiding additives, as well as increasing exercise and losing weight.
What motivated or inspired you to focus on integrative medical care with cancer patients?
When I realized that over 75 percent of cancer patients used or explore alternative therapies and that I was not well informed from the medical point of view about this, I decided to pursue a two-year fellowship in integrative medicine.
I have seen that a patient that is empowered and is part of his or her own treatment is always a better patient to treat.
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Besides the growing awareness of health benefits of these miracle berries for cancer patients, and the incredible potential to help fight obesity and help diabetics, they have also become increasingly popular as a kind of “party entertainment.”
Courageous guests are invited to chew a berry, and then enjoy the bizarre sensation of downing vinegar, radishes, pickles, mustard, hot sauce, marmite, onions, garlic, grapefruits, and lemons, with enthusiastic zeal. As the taste buds are “fooled” to interpret anything sour, bitter, or acidic as sweet, the guests can be part of this new “gourmet” experience of eating what tastes as sweet as fattening deserts!
Where have these miracle berries been hiding? Why don’t oncologists and nutritionists worldwide know about them?
Apparently, a very serious undertaking to promote the use of miracle berries began in the United States in the 1960s, when Robert Harvey, a biomedical graduate student, encountered the miracle berry’s remarkable ability to turn sour tastes into something sweet. He immediately recognized the potential health benefits to use this berry as a way to encourage sugar-addicted Americans to eat healthier foods that would also taste very sweet, just like the detrimental sugary junk that Americans love. This miracle berry could offer a sweet, healthy substitute in place of artificial sweeteners that harbored health risks.
Though it couldn’t be used as an alternative natural sweetener (like Stevia), dieters could enjoy, for example, after chewing a miracle berry, the pleasure of eating what tastes like a super-sweet low-calorie salad, thus enhancing their desire to eat vegetables instead of donuts and chocolate ice cream!
Harvey began to create a range of sugar-free products using miraculin extract from the berries. In the summer of 1974, schoolchildren in Boston were given a choice between miracle berry ices, in four different flavors, as well as sugar-sweetened “regular” ices, and the children always preferred the berry ones.
Enterprising, motivated and visionary, he knew this would be extremely beneficial for diabetics, not just dieters, when he founded the Miralin Company. With plans to cultivate berry bushes in Jamaica and Puerto Rico and have the active ingredient extracted in laboratories in the U.S., he was ready, with financial backers, to produce this worthwhile product and then sell it everywhere.
Though originally the FDA had led Harvey to believe that the berry extract was allowed under the classification “generally recognized as safe” since it had been safely ingested for centuries in West Africa, right before the manufacturing was to get underway, the FDA unexpectedly and abruptly announced that the miracle berry was an “additive” and not a food, and needed further testing.
At that time, Don Emery was the vice president of the Miralin Company, and he, along with the financial team, were sure that they would soon have a financially successful multibillion-dollar company, replacing millions of tons of sugar and artificial sweeteners. Many suspect that the FDA’s change of support was caused by pressure on the FDA by the large artificial sweetener manufacturers that felt threatened by the huge potential loss of business.
The FDA and powerful manufacturers of sugar and artificial sweeteners still deny this, and though it is unclear what really happened 40 years ago, what we do know is that the potential of this modest fruit was largely forgotten and we did not gain the benefits of miracle berries being readily available decades ago.
Since then, the miracle fruit berry has been studied around the world — in China, Japan, the Netherlands, as well as in the U.S. and in organizations including Unilever and the U.S. Army. Researchers have concluded that miracle fruits are entirely safe even in large amounts. A $100,000 toxicology study undertaken by Miralin demonstrated that rats eating miracle fruit concentrate were healthier than those eating pet food. It had no ill effects, even at high rates of consumption.
If the junk food industry would hop on board this ship, many healthier products could be produced. Imagine soda with no sugar, sweetness provided by a berry with only one calorie!
When a way is discovered to use the miraculin extract efficiently, we can look forward to its use as a safe sugar substitute. The shelf life of the fresh fruit is only two to three days, and the miraculin protein is denatured by heating. For personal use, freeze-dried pulp is available in granules or in tablets, and in this form has a shelf life of 10 to 18 months.
To try to offset this short window of opportunity, research for manufacturing miracle fruit tablets that offer the same taste-altering abilities is being attempted by various companies that claim the tablets contain the same properties and polyphenols of miracle fruit berries but in a non-perishable, highly-portable form. And attempts are still being made to create a commercial sweetener from the fruit for patients with diabetes.
The fruit itself is very expensive; purchasers should expect to pay as much as $2 for each berry!
Farmers of miracle berries, like Kris and Eric Tietig, of Miracle Farms, in Florida, are trying to provide cancer patients with berries for a lower price. Having experienced firsthand the suffering that a loved one went through during chemotherapy, they know what a huge difference a miracle berry can make. They generously donate berries to the oncology department of hospitals for use with their cancer patients.
But besides its rapid perishability, there is another deterrent to a rapid increase in the availability of berries: The miracle berry bushes take around four years to grow before they produce berries, though the Tietigs have increased production by using tree cuttings and cloning.
Large-scale indoor farming may well prove to be the future of the miracle berry, now that the word is spreading. There is no reason for us to continue using sugar, with all its long, sorry history of wreaking havoc on our bodies, when such a positive alternative exists!
Scientists are also involved in researching ways to lower the price of berries through bioengineering. A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo are working on genetically modifying tomato and lettuce plants, as a way of cultivating the miraculin protein. With the controversy that surrounds the safety of ingesting genetically modified products in general, and this in particular, it is much too soon to know if this technology would actually produce a synthetic form of miraculin that would be equally effective, and increase the availability of miraculin while reducing the cost of using it.
Though its existence has been known about for centuries, and despite its more recent popularity in the U.S., when I contacted the head of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center oncology department in Yerushalayim to ask if patients have been using miracle berries, he said that he had never heard about them. The usual prevention for loss of taste is still to numb the mouth by chewing ice cubes while chemotherapy is being administered.
In Japan, miracle fruit is already popular among patients with diabetes, and dieters. And innovative chefs who know about it are experimenting with the miracle berry’s potential to create delicious recipes that can help encourage people to eat healthy alternatives to the junk food we crave, despite its deleterious impact on our lives.
Imagine a future filled with sugarless, low-calorie desserts that taste better than their calorie-laden counterparts, because Hashem has provided us with a great sweetener from His natural pharmaceutical abundance!
I’m sure most patients would want to try chewing a miracle berry before downing the famous-for-helping-fight-cancer — but bitter-tasting — turmeric spice. Turmeric is full of super phytonutrients, and so is kale, but they would both be much more palatable for daily consumption if they could taste sweet with a miracle berry.
That is “berry” inspiring!
(Features Section, Sukkos edition, page 34-38)