I associate sugar-free with sad looking hard candies in a lonely corner of the drugstore shelves, carefully quarantined from the "good candy." From those ugly bright pink packets of sugar at every diner to Diet Coke, things labeled "sugar-free" are decidedly low-brow.
But in Chicago we have Homaro Cantu, chef of ritzy restaurants iNG and Moto, who is trying to make it sexy. Luckily for those of us who are intolerant of sugar alcohols or mildly neurotic, instead of lacing his food and drinks with chemicals, he's using something called miracle berry. I remember back in college when this stuff was vaguely illegal or something and people hoarded their pills of it imported from Asia. Now you can order it on Amazon. Surprisingly, I had never tried it before last night. I guess it was a "why bother" thing for me, since I pretty regularly eat normal desserts in moderation, though my taste buds have shifted over the years from not eating junk and I find almost all desserts way too sweet.
But last night I signed up for a special meal at iNG hosted by Chicago Foodies that was themed Guilty Pleasures. All six of the courses were themed around foods and drinks people feel guilty about. I was imagining a meal of pony tartare and whale sushi, but I guess that's my own sick mind at work. They were more mundane things: cigarettes, late-night tacos, carbs, meat, butter, and coffee. Unfortunately, I don't feel guilty about any of those things, though I have a vague disease related to coffee since it occasionally makes me more insane than I already am. Maybe cigarettes, but I've only smoked maybe twice in my life. The carbs course was a bit hilarious to me since it consisted of a single raviolo, Lilliputian slices of truffle-covered bread, and a copious amount of vegetables. Chef Nate Park said he was once quite overweight from gorging on pasta, but I don't think he would have had a problem if he had eaten pasta the way it was served there.
I wasn't terribly thrilled with the flavor tripping, but I wondered if I had done something wrong. Things tasted OK, I guess. The best thing was probably just this simple orange and this block of orange cream. It tasted a bit like fanta and icing...
My friend who is diabetic said she liked the way the sweet things tasted without the miracle berry powder. I agreed. I think this happens to a lot of people who don't eat processed foods: our taste buds get more sensitive to sweet and we also learn to appreciate more complex flavors. If I ever indulge in foods I used to overeat when I was less healthy, a lot of them taste cloying and disgusting to me. It would be interesting to know what percentage of this is physiological and what is psychological.
I think the flavor I appreciate most now is sour. When I played with some miracle berry powder at home, I found that many things I enjoyed like kombucha and lime tasted very flat. I also tried it with a very sour little Australian citrus my cousin gave me, but that tasted flat as well. Apparently in that little lime there wasn't much else to it but sour.
I am planning to trying it with some other stuff though, particularly things that don't seem to express their full flavor without massive amounts of sugar like chai and mulled wine.
However, it is interesting what iNG is doing and another diabetic friend told me he appreciates that he can enjoy a sweet cocktail there that has essentially very little sugar.
The head chef there, Homaro Cantu, has a bunch of other projects aiming to use such flavor manipulation to improve global health.
That's the fun part. But Cantu envisions greater purposes for this little fruit: eliminating sugar from our diets, conquering obesity and curing hunger. If squeezing lemon into soda water produces something resembling Sprite, then why shouldn't that be Sprite? Two ingredients plus the miracle berry. Junk food becomes health food. Sugar goes away. "All these sugar cane growers can just get rid of the sugar cane and start growing the berries, and then we can live happily ever after," Cantu says. "I just see it as a very simple, easy fix."
However, my own impression is that miracle berry is very hard to use and even a top restaurant with experienced chefs like iNG seems to have trouble delivering a consistently good flavor from it. It is widely speculated that this is the reason iNG keeps getting snubbed by the Michelin guide.
It is cool though that he is more realistic about human nature than other celebrity chef health campaigners. He recognizes that one of the reasons people eat fast food is because it tastes good, that in order to get people to eat differently, we have to work on viable alternatives
CANTU: We - we have a problem with food addiction in our country. Diets don't work, and people that go on diets go on and off. You've never heard anybody ever say, boy, I really enjoyed being on that diet. That was awesome. You know, that just doesn't happen.
We're trying to take the other approach. We want to give you food products, like this waffle, that tastes better than the real thing, just because of the way it's made. And, you know, you - you swear you're ingesting tons of, you know, calories from sugar, but there's nothing there.
But having studied food science at a major research university, I feel like I've definitely seen this before, and that it doesn't always go well. It's not like food science departments at both universities and major corporations haven't been working on this for ages, bringing us such failures as Olestra chips and Diet Soda. There rarely is a simple, easy fix...
And I see more and more fancy restaurants dealing with the sugar problem by just having tiny desserts. Honestly, I'd prefer to have a very small dessert made with real sugar like this innovative and delicious silver dollar-size dollap of ice cream and mochi I had at Blackbird, than the two very large sugar-free desserts I had at iNG.
Anyone else tried miracle berry? What do you think?