How much do you count on your taste buds, as a food writer? Do you use them every day, as a recipe tester, cook, restaurant reviewer, or just because you love to eat?
Then beware of pine nuts. They can ruin your tastebuds for weeks. Actually, they can poison you.
Last Thursday I ate pine nuts at lunch. The next day, a breakfast of fruit, yogurt and granola tasted especially bitter. Lunch was worse. All three dishes I sampled at a hip new neighborhood place were so bitter I could hardly eat them. While making dinner, I was temped to throw out my salmon chowder because of its metallic taste. It tasted like bad white wine. On a hunch, I asked my husband to sample a spoonful. “Really good,” he pronounced.
That’s when I knew something was wrong. Owen Googled “bitter taste in mouth” and found this article about “Pine Mouth Sydrome,” which can last up to a month. It’s a cruel thing to do to anyone in our business who reviews restaurants, or testing or develops recipes, or cooks.
I’m still figuring out what I can eat. I roasted cauliflower Sunday night, looking forward to its caramelized sweetness, but spit out my first taste. Plain green beans were horrible. Cereal and milk goes down fine, but it’s boring. And the metallic taste in my mouth when I wake up makes me think I’ve been eating cars in my sleep.
So if you you love pine nuts, or you want to make pesto this summer, you’re probably wondering whether pine nuts are safe to buy, and from where? Try expensive ones. In the past I’ve paid $28 per pound for pine nuts that looked like the long, slender ones in the photo above. They could have been from Italy or the US.
But buy ’em cheaply and it’s buyer beware. According to USA Today, Costco has had “a few complaints” about their pine nuts, but couldn’t get to the bottom of it in lab tests. (Here’s more about Costco pine nuts on Chowhound.) I bought mine toasted at Trader Joe’s, where the package said the nuts might have come from Korean, Russia or Vietnam. The pine nuts were tiny, by the way — nothing like the ones in the photo. When I took the opened bag back and complained to a store supervisor, he said the Food and Drug Administration says pine nuts are safe for consumption, while also stating that they “affect one in every 20 people.” That seems like a lot to me. (Coincidentally, guess who else was affected by Trader Joe’s pine nuts? Nicole of Pinch my Salt.)
When it comes to making pesto, you might also skip pine nuts altogether. I made a traditional Genovese pesto from a recipe in Saveur’s current issue, using walnuts soaked in hot water for an hour.
So, has Pine Mouth Syndrome happened to you or anyone you know? Might you try other nuts instead, from now on? Or are you taking your chances, perhaps with more expensive pine nuts?
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Update: I sent an email to Trader Joe’s through the website and got this reply:
We are fully aware of the issue concerning this product. In addition, there has been
ongoing research and investigation into this matter by the FDA, and as
what is occuring is reported a naturally occuring situation with the
pine nuts, and does not pose any specific health concern, we do
currently still offer this product in our stores. In addition, as this
occurrence seems to experienced by some customers, while not with
others, the pine nuts have indeed been determined to be safe for
We want to assure you that if we had any cause for concern regarding the
safety of any product that we sell, we would immediately remove the
product from our store shelves and let our customers know of the reason
for this action. However, the occurrence has not been linked to any sort
of contamination, pesticides or heavy metals as has also been reported
on some internet sources. Some of the pine nuts involved in some of the
cases reported were from China, and most recently from Russia, as well.
As a result of this latest information, we have discontinued sourcing
any of our products from Russia. Again, there is no conclusive link to
any particular species or source country. In addition, we are updating
our product labeling to inform our customers of this possible occurrence
with the product.