Pine Mouth Problem Causes Epicurean Distress

Culinary Pine Nuts

Pine nuts, used by creative cooks in salads, pestos and snacks, are now reportedly causing an unpleasant condition called "pine mouth."










Embracing international foods and experimenting with culinary embellishments has become a way of life for creative cooks, and pine nuts have become popular additions to salads, pestos, confections and baked goods.  But recent reports say that these nuts are responsible for a bitter, metallic, sour aftertaste that persists as long as two weeks.

“I ate pine nuts on a Sunday, and had symptoms by Monday,” says Cheryl Thiede, a cooking enthusiast in Eau Claire, Wis. “I was very anxious about what it could be – anxious enough to go to the Internet to see what horrible medical condition I could have.”

What she found was pine mouth, a condition she ultimately endured for a week.  Thiede’s symptoms were similar to others who shared her problem. Her taste sensors were normal when chewing any food, but within seconds of swallowing, a terrible aftertaste would blossom in the back of her mouth. Fortunately there were no other health implications, but the bad taste was distressing.

“It was really disturbing because I love food and discouraging because I couldn’t get rid of it,” she explained.

Time is the only cure for this culinary landmine that is selective in whom it affects. Two people can eat from the same pile of pine nuts with one escaping unscathed.

The increasing problem may have its origins in plant species and international consumerism.

The pine nut has been used since prehistory as a culinary supplement in Europe and the Southwestern United States, but it was sustainable by the people enjoying its gentle flavors until recently.  Now that the globe continues to shrink and demand for what was once known as a gourmet item continues to rise, there is a supply-and-demand issue.

“There have been about 100 complaints [of pine mouth] from Feb. 22, 2009, to the present,” notes Mike Herndon of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The first known case of pine mouth happened in Belgium in 2001, but many cases go unreported. Since then, several studies have been performed on pine nuts in an attempt to determine which were causing the bad tastes.  A report done by Nestle Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested that like fingerprints, the fatty-acid profiles of pine nuts are specific to the species of tree from which they are harvested. The report suggested that two of the several species of tree from which commercial pine nuts are harvested are not considered to be edible, those commonly known as Chinese white pine and Chinese red pine. Other reports propose that it is the oxidation levels of the nuts that are to blame for the taste disturbances.

The specific origin of pine mouth remains debatable, but the European Union was concerned enough about the situation to issue an EU Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed in August 2009.  Their explanation for the discomforting aftertaste was that edible Chinese pine nuts had been combined with inedible nuts that had high tannins and different fatty-acid profiles, especially during the 2008-09 seasons.

Fortunately, the China Tree Nut Association, the China Chamber of Commerce for Imports and Exports of Foodstuffs and the Chinese pine nut processors have listened to the concerns of their international customers.  In November 2009 they gathered together to pursue the pine nut situation.  Their determination was that the white “Huashan” variety of pine nut should not be used in snack, salad or bakery products. Furthermore, it should not be mixed with other pine nut varieties for overseas markets.

Until market reliability returns, however, there are steps that can be taken to prevent the distasteful affliction.  This might be an excellent time to broaden culinary horizons and use walnuts, almonds or pistachios to sprinkle on salads or blend into pestos.  The slightly different flavors will nod to gastronomic creativity.

But the gentle flavor of these ancient nuts is enticing enough to overcome the worst threat of pine mouth’s horrible aftertaste.

“I think I’ll eat them again,” says Thiede, “but for a long time I will pause and think about it. I don’t want to have pine mouth again for sure.”

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