Molly For Foodies? On A Flavor Trip With Chicago Chef Homaro Cantu.

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The powder, piled high in a small ceramic bowl, was circulated to the crowd that had packed the back of a Lower East Side Italian restaurant. "Take a spoon and place it on your tongue," said the middle-aged man leading the gathering. "It won't take long to kick in." Hipster coke den this was not. Food Republic is a family website, after all. Instead, I was participating in what chef Homaro Cantu — the man behind Moto and iNG restaurants in Chicago — referred to as flavor tripping. That dust we were faithfully ingesting? Not some synthetic monosodium test tube monster, but something called the "miracle berry" which, like the name suggests, plays god with your taste buds.

On Sunday evening a crowd of food fans and science geeks gathered at Fatta Cuckoo as part of a demonstration and cookbook signing organized by Underground Eats. Cantu was in town to appear on national television to promote his Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook and show how his eight years of research culminated in an eating philosophy the avoids refined sugars completely. (Cantu began the demonstration with some words about the evils of the sugar industry and the heady statement that "cookies were invented as a way to sell sugar.")

But back to the powder, which was just kicking in when he passed around halved lemon slices. He asked us to bite in, as if it were a clementine. The result was nothing short of shocking. Instead of puckering, my mouth sensed pleasure. It was like a shot of the freshest, most well-balanced lemonade I've ever tasted. Bright citrus with underlying sweetness. I was hooked. The next trick had us squirting lemon into soda water. "You just made Sprite," said the chef about the refreshing beverage. The final demonstration was taking a tablespoon of sour cream and generously squirting lime juice on top of it. The result was a creamy cheesecake proxy that was almost too convincing. (I would have taken seconds if offered.)

So what was going on here? What was this berry? How is this going to change the way we eat? Cantu describes the effects of the substance as "rewiring your taste buds" — an experience that makes certain foods taste significantly sweeter than they would be normally. Hence the transformation of the lemon.

Cantu started researching the berry (which contains a crucial protein called miraculin) when a close friend battling cancer asked him for help in creating recipes that would fight the crippling effects of chemotherapy. Chemo patients often lose significant amounts of weight due to drugs causing most foods to take on an unappetizing metallic quality. After trying hundreds of concepts, Cantu stumbled upon the miracle berry. The cancer patient friend ultimately "ate everything on his plate" and Cantu began his almost decade of research that culminated in the release of the book (and some forthcoming, yet-to-be-announced food products).

There is still much to be determined as to how these berries will be adapted by the food industry. One idea is that the substance will be used in place of artificial sweetners in sodas and energy drinks, but this is likely years away. It also poses the question: Will flavor tripping become part of our every day dining regimen? Is it the secret to weight loss?

Oh yeah, and about the berries. They are widely available online. You can Google search "M Berry" and find a number of vendors selling the stuff in pill and powder form. Cantu himself is working on a product that he hopes will be priced lower than Stevia. Order a packet and try it out with lemons and limes. Hell, it's certainly a fun party trick. And it might just be a miracle.