It is a common complaint among long-suffering dieters: if only low-calorie foods weren't so bland. A new cafe in Tokyo appears to have the answer in the form of a little red berry from Africa, appropriately named the miracle fruit.
Most people would turn their noses up at the food on offer at the Miracle Fruits cafe in the city's Ikebukuro district. Not one item has more than 100 calories - a fifth of the average dessert - not even the cakes and ice-cream. They are all unbearably sour, palatable only with help from the miracle fruit. All that calorie-conscious sweet-toothed diners have to do is chew the flesh of a berry, taken from the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, for about two minutes, discard the pip, and tuck in. In an instant, the lemons and limes taste as good as an ordinary sugar-laden dessert.
The berries contain miraculin, a rogue glycoprotein that tricks the tongue's taste-bud receptors into believing a sour food is actually sweet. People in parts of west Africa have been using the berries to sweeten sour food and drink for centuries, but it is only recently that the global food industry has cottoned on.
The berries have barely registered outside their native habitat because they rot quickly, making them near-impossible to export, according to Namco, the firm behind the Tokyo cafe. The breakthrough came when a Japanese food importer said it had found a way to freeze-dry the berries while retaining their sweetness-inducing properties. The effects of a single berry are said to last between 30 minutes and an hour, more than enough time to sample the cafe's fare, which includes lemon gelato and miniature plums in syrup. The cafe is hoping to attract working women who would normally make a beeline for the more conventional all-you-can-manage cake and tea deals found all over Tokyo. "We find that young women are more concerned about their calorie intake than any other group," said Namco's Shintaro Kiya.
Yesterday the Guardian braced its taste buds for an acidic onslaught to see if the berries really do the trick. The waiter mischievously suggested samplingthe food and drink - a lemon cake, assorted fruit and a glass of rosehip tea - before trying the miracle berry. The slice of cake, bright yellow and embellished by dollops of lemon jelly, was nondescript, but with a definite bitterness. The miracle berry came in a small white dish. Eaten alone it tasted remotely sweet, but a few minutes later the rest of the food had undergone a dramatic transformation. The cake had taken on a new flavour and the tea had lost its bitterness. The fruit - oranges, grapefruits, lemons and several different berries - were much kinder on the palate, though thankfully the berry had not completely removed their refreshing tartness.
But this particular gastronomic miracle does not come cheap. The two desserts and tea, along with the berry and a coffee to rinse away its residual effects, came to about £12. Still, for a serious weight-watcher it would be money well spent: the meal contained fewer than 300 calories.
Mariko Noguchi had barely started on her premium lemon gelato but confirmed she had been touched by the miracle. "I tried a bit beforehand but it just tasted like bitter ice," the 46-year-old said. And her verdict, post-berry: "I can now honestly say it's delicious."