FDA

Miracle Fruit Revisited

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My friend Jacob Grier hosted another Miracle Fruit party a few weeks ago. A Wall Street Journal reporter was there, and wrote up the story:

Within minutes of consuming the berries, guests were devouring lime wedges as if they were candy. Straight lemon juice went down like lemonade, and goat cheese tasted as if it was "covered in powdered sugar," said one astonished partygoer. A rich stout beer seemed "like a milkshake," said another.

I was there, too. And my second Miracle Fruit experience was even a little better than the first. Reporter Joanna Slater did a bit of digging on the regulatory hang-ups of the fruit, too:

Miracle fruit remains in a kind of regulatory limbo in the U.S. It's perfectly fine to grow and sell it, because the Food and Drug Administration doesn't require prior approval to sell fresh fruits, though it can intercede if it suspects problems. The trickier part comes when people try to use it as an additive in other foods. That's when regulators start asking questions.

Two American entrepreneurs, Robert Harvey and Don Emery, tried this route back in the 1970s but the venture ended in heartbreak. Their initial focus was on products for diabetics, but some of their financial backers, which included Reynolds Metals Co. and Barclays Bank PLC, had a loftier goal. "They were interested in replacing half the sugar industry in the world," Mr. Harvey says.

Mr. Harvey figured out how to turn miracle fruit into a dried powder and then a tablet. His company, Miralin Co., explored making everything from chewing gum to a miraculin-coated drinking straw. It developed recipes for diabetics which assumed people would pop a miracle-fruit tablet before eating the results.

Reynolds, now part of Alcoa, then owned the Eskimo Pie brand of frozen snacks and suggested trying miraculin-coated ice pops. In the summer of 1974, a group of Harvard Business School students conducted ice-pop taste tests on Boston playgrounds, giving children a choice between regular ice pops and miraculin-coated ones. The children preferred the latter by a wide margin, Mr. Harvey says.

That same year brought a big setback: The FDA sent a letter calling miraculin a "food additive" requiring years of testing. The letter effectively scuttled the venture, which was on the verge of selling products and wasn't prepared to spend money on extensive testing. Miralin filed for bankruptcy and fired 280 employees. It's only in the past five years that "I'm able about to laugh about this instead of crying," says Mr. Harvey, now 75 years old, who went on to a lucrative career making blood pumps used in heart surgery.

Grier has much more here. He also explains how you can order your own.