A cure-all African 'miracle berry' loved by all

TANAH MERAH, MALAYSIA: When it surfaced via a Thai connection in a village here, everyone was initially sceptical. The plant -- Synse-palum dulcificum -- had the reputation of being able to cure a host of illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer.

But as time went by, word of its curative powers made the rounds and the locals began calling it pokok ajaib or "miracle plant".

The name is not particular to Malaysia. Research on the Internet showed it is also known as miracle berry, magic berry or flavour berry, a species which grows naturally in Ghana, West Africa.

The miracle berry has an unusual effect on the tongue. It makes sour or bitter food and drink taste sweet, with a sweetness similar to that of artificial sweeteners.

If you chew first on the berry and then on a lemon, it would not taste sour at all. It would taste rather something like lemonade.

Mohd Azizi Abdullah, 26, who operates the Setiakawan Nursery in Kampung Limau Purut here, said the plant was introduced into Kelantan by Thais and many, including him, had been sceptical of its unique abilities.

"We dismissed it as a tall tale," he said.

A change of heart came when a Thai brought the plants to his nursery for sale, two years ago. "He asked me to eat a ripe berry from the plant and then told me to taste a lime which he had brought along with him," Azizi said.

"The lime really tasted sweet. To end the sweet taste, one only needs to chew its leaves.

"But, I did not buy the plant from him as the offer price of RM100 for each was too high for me," he said.

Azizi said he eventually bought 1,000 plants at a much lower price a few months later from a Sungai Golok trader.

"It was quite hard to convince people of the value of the plant at the start, but once they learnt about it, my stock sold out quickly and I had to order more.

"Now, sales are much slower because almost everybody here has a plant at home." He now sells a small plant for about RM6 while a bigger potted plant fetches about RM60.

Azizi, who swears by the plant's properties, said a diabetic from Gua Musang bought several plants and ate the berries while the leaves were pounded into paste and used as salve on the wounds on his foot.

"The man was cured of the disease after several months. His was not the only incident as I know of many other similar incidents.

"I also take the berries, occasionally, but it is not advisable to take too many as they might cause dizziness."

The Setiakawan Nursery managed by Azizi was started by his father, Abdullah Awang, 11 years ago. Besides the "miracle plant", it also has many ornamental plants.

A spokesman for Mardi, the agricultural research institute in Kota Baru, said there had been no research on the plant yet as it was not native to Malaysia and was relatively new.

"In Africa, it is eaten only to make food taste better. But Malaysians, it seems, are one step ahead and are using relatively everything from the plant for various ailments."

Westerners discovered in the 1700s local tribesmen eating the fruit before consuming bland food.

The berry resurfaced in the United States in the 1970s, when an entrepreneur attempted to commercialise it with plans for "Miracle Fruit" products like chewing gum, ice lollies and candy.

The US Food and Drug Administration, however, ban-ned commercialisation pending exhaustive research, which would take many more years.

Now, Synsepalum dulcificum has resurfaced as a dietary supplement, though not as a sweetener as in the US.

It currently enjoys no legal status in the European Union, but is accepted in Japan as a harmless additive.

Recently, a few British citizens have been selling freeze dried granules of the fruit, imported from Ghana. The effect is the same as the fresh miracle berries.