Friday, February 7, 2014

The Flavor of Creativity

            If necessity is the mother of invention, then serendipity must be the father. On the road to grand discoveries, innovators hit speed bumps along the way, but sometimes those speed bumps will knock you onto a new path. Such was the case with Chicago-based chef and molecular gastronomist Homaro Cantu when he discovered the miracle berry and the culinary phenomenon of flavor tripping.

            Cantu’s journey began when a friend who was receiving chemotherapy and radiation for cancer asked him to look for a way to improve the taste of food, as one side effect of chemo is the twisting of the taste buds. Because the taste buds are twisted, patients cannot taste sweetness, only sour and metallic tastes. Cantu began the search for such a cure and happened upon a berry he suspects is originally from West Africa. This fruit, named the miracle berry, contains miraculin, a substance that coats the tongue, making sour foods taste sweet. Cantu also found that miraculin will latch onto the twisted taste buds and untwist them. He had found the solution to his friend’s taste problems, but he had also unlocked the door to an untapped market of the food industry.

            As a molecular gastronomist, Cantu realized the power the miracle berry had to eliminate the need for sugar in food. He argues that if your tongue is coated in miraculin, healthy, sugarless foods can be combined to make a healthy junk food. This phenomenon is called “flavor tripping,” and it is the driving force behind the success of his two restaurants, Ing and Moto. A video on the Ing website shows Cantu at home with his wife and two daughters. He walks viewers through the process of flavor tripping and makes waffles with caramel apple sauce—all without sugar. The entire science has been developed in the field of flavor tripping based out of the food laboratories that are connected to his restaurants. 

The innovations that stem from this discovery go much farther than an amazing culinary experience. Cancer specialists are currently studying mirculin for the possibility of treating chemo patients. Though the studies are incomplete, they are beginning to show that chemo patients who use miracle berries gain more weight and have a more enjoyable eating experience. Cantu is also working toward applying the “sugarless junk food” he has created to the obesity epidemic in America. He believes that technology can be developed to infuse junk food with miriculin, essentially making the two-step process he uses at his restaurants into a one-step, everyday experience.

In addition to the extensive work with the miracle berry, Cantu has developed a system of indoor farms where the offices of his Moto restaurant used to be. He organically grows all his own food, saving the business $2,000 a week in extraneous packaging, preserving, and shipping costs. This also gives him complete control over the food he gives his customers. Cantu says that the thing he values most is efficiency. With efficiency, he can save money, and put that saved money toward becoming more efficient.
“Everything becomes obsolete at some point,” he said. “The trick is staying ahead of the curve.”
Cantu draws his inspiration from experiences he had as a child:

I grew up very poor. My mother, sister, and I were homeless for about 3 years. We went from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, and all we saw was junk food. When I started working in nicer restaurants I realized the biggest difference between poverty and upper middle class was diet. There’s a huge opportunity out there to take all the problems with food that I grew up with and really flip them upside down.

His family background and childhood as well as his expertise in the fields of molecular gastronomy and culinary arts both served him in his creative and innovative endeavors.
Even though it’s as if timing and circumstance led Cantu to his discovery, he also used all but one of the “Creative Aids” outlined by Steven M. Smith and Thomas B. Ward in their article “Cognition and the Creation of Ideas.” These aids are: combination, abstraction, noticing, knowledge, and support technologies. Combination is the technique of blending novel ideas with old ones. In developing new foods for his restaurants, he takes what he has already created and reshapes it to make new taste experiences. Essentially, the ingredients he uses are not new, they’re just combined in new ways. Abstraction is looking at the problem in an abstract way so as to see all possibilities instead of focusing on what is in front of you. Cantu searched the world over for the miracle berry when a less creative person would have looked for a medication or a certain food group that they already had at their disposal.
Noticing involves seeing all of the possibilities of your discovery. After he found a solution to his friend’s problem, Cantu could have moved on with his life and started other projects. Instead, he noticed that the miracle berry could be used for other purposes as well. Knowledge is the next step after noticing. Because Cantu had the knowledge base he did, he was able to expound upon the possibilities he noticed. Without cooking school and a scientific education, he would not have been able to capitalize on his ideas. In the same vein, he would not have been able to make his creations without the help of the support technologies at his disposal. He used all of these cognitive creative aids to turn his discovery into a business, then a career, then a science.
The fact that his work is on its way to change the food industry is a real life example of how little-c creativity can become Big-C. Little-c creativity is his restaurants and the various concoctions made to delight customers. Big-C creativity is the paradigm shift in suggesting that sugar could become obsolete. In Cantu’s own words, “There’s a whole world in gastronomy that we’re opening the doors to. It’s really kind of mind blowing.”


  1. I think Cantu's discovery is particularly creative because of the way he continues to develop it. While looking for the solution to the single problem of his friend not being able to taste sweetness, he not only found this answer in his miracle berries, but also pushed forward to find new uses for them. Using these berries as a substitute for sugar and trying to use this technology to target the growing problem of obesity is potentially paradigm-shifting in my opinion. With the growing controversy over over things like high fructose corn syrup and the unhealthy diets of many Americans, I think Cantu's has the power to create a big change. If he hasn't done it yet, Cantu definitely has the potential to reach Big-C creativity.

  2. This post is awesome and so is Cantu!

    I think my favorite aspect of this creative endeavor is that it is so multifaceted; it's not a result of any singular thing, but a culmination of combinations.

    Firstly, take his educational and occupational background as a molecular gastronomist. This had to be invaluable during his testing and understanding of the miracle berry and its effects.

    Secondly, there was his instigation to search for something to untwist taste buds and provide a natural, unavoidable sweetness to food, in the form of his friend going through chemotherapy.

    But it didn't end there.

    Thirdly, he discovered miraculin's amazing effects don't stop with cancer patients; the miracle berry is for everyone, as it can be used to make healthy (sweet) foods, particularly junk food, that doesn't contain the unnecessarily high amounts of sugar that most do today. It not only avoids this problem, but effectively eradicates it, as there is NO sugar needed whatsoever.

    Furthermore, this creation is also multifaceted as his past life experiences come into play. With a past of homelessness and depending on shelters infested with unhealthy junk food, Cantu has seen both sides of the food industry depending on one's current socioeconomic class. While this was not an direct instigation to his initial discovery, as the request from his friend was, it was undoubtedly an unconscious factor, later brought to the forefront when he witnessed the miracle berry's effects.

    This combination effect is not only an example of how serendipitous this creation is, but also of how complex and multifaceted creativity and creative insight are in their own right.

  3. This is so fascinating! I'm so curious to know how Cantu "happened upon" the miracle berry, and if it had been used for similar purposes in the past. I think that, even more so than many of the creatives we have looked at in class, Cantu follows the "problem solving" model of creativity that we read about in several texts. He was presented with a dilemma, and perhaps through research or maybe during a "moment of insight" he discovered a very clearly out of the box solution. I think that the combination of his personal experiences, as well as his expertise also played a significant role in leading him to such a creative discovery. I thought it was especially impressive how Cantu developed additional expanded uses for the berries, from flavoring foods to addressing obesity (it reminded me of the testing method in which people are asked to come up as many uses as possible for a brick). Cantu has clearly demonstrated that his innovations are not just novel - they are practical!


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