posted by Dave Arnold
In the 1880’s western scientists figured out that chewing the leaves of the tropical Indian plant gymnema sylvestre completely obliterates your ability to taste sweet. It was known in India long before then — they called it gurmar, “sugar destroyer.”
The active ingredients in the plant are gymnemic acids. They don’t mask sweetness — they actually block the ability of sweet receptors to sense sweet compounds, including artificial sweeteners like splenda and saccharine. Gymnemic acid makes sugar taste like sand, fruit taste like an acid bomb, and dessert chocolate taste like baking chocolate. You have to taste it to believe it. We first used gymnemic acid in a demo with Harold McGee three years ago, and we’ve been demo’ing it ever since. The results are as unpleasant as they are instructive, a rare opportunity to knock out one of your tastes while leaving the rest intact. You can experience how sweetness interacts with acid, salt, umami, and bitter in common foods that we take for granted. I understand a lot more about fruit, ice cream, and Coca Cola now that I’ve tried them on gymnemic acid.
One possible real-world application of sweet destruction is figuring out how foods will taste after they ferment. Fermentation gets rid of sugar. Although fermentation produces many flavors unrelated to sugar loss, I think gymnemic acid could provide useful insight into the acid/bitter balance in juices and ciders BEFORE they ferment. I don’t know of anyone doing this. I tested my hypothesis at the most recent Harold McGee class by including Ashmead’s Kernel apple (which is sometimes used in cider) and pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon grape juice in our tasting. Unfortunately our grape juice was not of high enough quality to really get a feel for what the varietals taste like without sugar. The apple slice compared well with my memory of Ashmead’s Kernel cider. Qualified success.
Would you ever use this stuff in cooking? Hell no. It tastes terrible and the effects last a long time (like half an hour). Should everyone try it once? Hell yes. Here’s how:
First, buy yourself some Gymnema Sylvestre. It’s pretty easy to get — it is used in Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine to control blood sugar and appetite. Ours, a green powder loaded into vegetarian gel capsules, comes from Tattva’s herbs. We break each capsule and divide the powder into two servings –more than enough. Next, arrange yourself a tasting plate –here is ours:
Taste some of the stuff before you take the gymnemic acid. Get a feel for the acidity of the fruit, the taste of the chocolate, etc. Now put the gymnema powder on your tongue. I’m not going to lie to you, it is unpleasant. Just do it. You’re shooting for enlightenment. Keep the stuff on your tongue and swirl it around your mouth. Don’t swallow it right away. Did I mention it tastes bad? Stop complaining. Try to keep that stuff in your mouth as long as you can. It takes about a minute for the effect to kick in. Afterwards, take a small sip of water and chew some bread to cleanse your palate. Start tasting stuff. Don’t worry, the effect will eventually wear off; but don’t do it on your way to a 4 star restaurant. Most people start getting their sweet back in about 20 minutes, and are fully back within an hour.
On the Fun Side:
No one is having Gymnemic acid parties – it’s interesting, but I can’t say it’s fun. Miraculin, on the other hand…
Miraculin makes sour things taste sweet, while still remaining sour — it causes your sweet receptors to respond to acid. It comes from the miracle fruit, from the West African plant Synsepalum dulcificum. It is truly cool stuff. The best I’ve ever had is the freeze-dried kind that we were given as a gift by our buddy Katsuya Fukushima. Unfortunately it’s hard to get. You can buy the fruit fresh or forzen, but it’s expensive and goes bad quickly. The stuff I get now is called Miracle Frooties. I buy it on eBay from LadyKingel. She gives some of the profit to charity and ships instantly. Whenever I do miraculin I get stupid and eat twenty limes.
In case you were wondering, gymnemic acid ruins miraculin too.