Watch Out for Ongoing Bitter Taste from Pine Nuts

by diannejacob on July 26, 2011

See those innocent-looking pine nuts? They can poison you! (Photo courtesy of Kent Cameron from A Food Centric Life blog.)

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?

* * *

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
consumption.

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.

{ 43 comments }

Jackie Garvin July 28, 2011 at 5:36 am

I’ve never heard of pine mouth before. Thanks for the education. Maybe this is something I should consider as a weight loss program???

Barb July 28, 2011 at 6:43 am

If I only knew for sure this would end I might be able to forgive! I ate bad pine nuts (and not that many) on May 7, 2011 and developed the metallic mouth on May 9th. The metallic taste eventually went away BUT I still do not have my complete sense of taste back yet and I’m writing this on July 28, 2011! I have gone thru all the steps of seeing my PCP and an ENT and even tried an acupuncturist – all to no avail. Just to be safe I am going to have an MRI done but then that’s where I draw the line with doctors. I have done a lot of reading on pine mouth syndrome and have never come across anyone who has had it last as long as I have (with only having eaten them just the one time). Am I the only one and why has it affected me like this? Will I ever get my complete sense of taste back? Trying to cook meals is so hard these days I don’t really like cooking any more (and I used to really enjoy trying new recipes).

Kelly July 28, 2011 at 9:25 am

Ugh. Do we know if Costco & TJ’s are taking the nuts back? I JUST bought a bag a couple of weeks back and used maybe 1 tablespoon to garnish a dish. Reading some of those comments it makes me nerovus to use anymore and also annoying as even when you get them at a more bargain price like at TJ’s they are still not cheap.

cherie mercer twohy August 1, 2011 at 8:27 pm

trader joe’s and costco both have excellent return policies, and i h ave no doubt that either vendor will supply a full refund.

diannejacob August 2, 2011 at 11:44 am

Yes, I had no problem with that part of my adventure.

Jane July 28, 2011 at 11:11 am

Interesting. I’ve never experienced that problem with pine nuts, but I do experience something very similar after eating fresh pineapple; its effect lasts for several hours at least. Weird, huh?

Since pine nuts have become so ridiculously expensive, I’ve been using sunflower seeds or walnuts in my pesto instead. I even tried it with pistachios, but that was decidedly not a big hit; something about the texture didn’t seem to work well in pesto, and the flavor kind of clashed. Granted that pesto is not quite the same without the pine nuts, but if you make sure to use excellent cheese, good olive oil, and fresh garlic in your pesto it’s still pretty darn good.

diannejacob July 28, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Absolutely, Jane. I’ve learned in the comments that there are tons of ways to make pesto. I contemplated pistachios but thought they might be odd. It’s good to have confirmation.

Re the pineapple, I’ve heard that before, and about other foods too. My husband says walnuts “bite” the inside of his mouth. But those things are quite temporary compared to days on end of this metallic, bitter taste.

Chris Nyles July 28, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Hi Dianne,

I just made pesto sauce to go with our pasta recently and my children complained of putting too much pine nuts. My son specifically pointed out that it tasted like there was peanut butter on it. I used the normal ratio of the basil, parmegiano reggiano, olive oil, and pine nuts as I usually did and to me it was just right. I checked the expiry date of the pine nuts and it was fine. I store my nuts and oils in my refrigerator to extend their shelf life and also to keep them from turning rancid.

Thanks for posting this article. It’s good to know and share with others the experiences we encounter with some unique edible ingredients we conceive as safe to eat. and approved ny FDA for human consumption.

Chris

diannejacob July 28, 2011 at 12:56 pm

That’s so odd, considering you made the recipe the way you always do. But then, even when I make things over and over, they turn out a little different each time.

I guess from the FDA’s standpoint, these type of pine nuts are not going to kill you, and they don’t affect everyone. So it’s not so bad. Just incredibly annoying.

Dorothy July 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm

So sorry you’re been stricken, Dianne! A nasty fate for anyone, but a professional disaster for a Foodie Writer. I recall reading an article a couple of years ago about this problem and that it WAS a particular species of pine nut from a cheaper source, but I can’t remember any more than that. So Trader Joe saying it isn’t linked to a particular species sounds to me like they really didn’t care to do their own research. Also, they should at least give you a refund! Sigh….

diannejacob July 28, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Thanks Dorothy. Hope it goes away soon. Trader Joe’s did refund my money. They’re really good about giving money back if you don’t like a product. Wish it was that easy, though.

Matt Hoffman July 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm

This happened to me quite recently. I bought roasted pine nuts from Trader Joe’s and used them in a pasta salad 10 days ago. I experienced no problems until 2 days after eating the salad. Now everything I eat or drink leaves a bitter aftertaste in the back of my mouth. Hopefully the problem will abate in another week or so as the various web sites that discuss pine mouth promise.

….no more Trader Joe’s pine nuts for me.

diannejacob July 29, 2011 at 7:59 am

Me either! It’s been over a week for me, and I still have the bitter taste in my mouth. At longer food no longer tastes inedible, just off or sour.

Laura @ Hip Pressure Cooking July 29, 2011 at 2:43 am

I live outside of Rome, where Pin Nuts, literally, grow on trees. Actually, we pick-up the pine cones from the tall, flat palm-like mediterranean pine trees and my husband spends an hour cracking all the seeds out of their pods – to get us half a cup of pine nuts!

Pine nuts can go rancid fairly “quickly”. Whether expensive or not, get the “freshest” pine nuts you can (like from a store that has a quick tun-around) and and store them in the refrigerator in a glass vase. I read some similar discussions on this topic and some have mentioned a pine taste… that is completely normal and a sign of fresh pine nuts – that IS what they taste like when fresh out of the pine cone!

Perhaps I’m just lucky but i my 25 years of cooking with pine nuts in the U.S. I have never had this problem!!!

Ciao,

L

diannejacob July 29, 2011 at 8:02 am

How wonderful to go out and forage for pine nuts, Laura. They must taste incredible when fresh from the tree. The piney taste you mention sounds normal to me. Here in the US we are getting a different variety of pine nuts from abroad, and that must be the problem.

Laura @ Hip Pressure cooking July 29, 2011 at 8:52 am

Diane.. foraging sounds so romantic! The Mediterranean pines are street trees here and even problematic if a pine cone falls on a parked car you will get a nice dent or broken windshield!

I definitely agree with you, if your palette is at risk, ONLY go with Italian Pine Nuts!

Ciao,

L

P.S. Did you go back to the restaurant to tell them about the problem to check their Pine Nuts for rancidity?

P.P.S. I think you stumbled on a new diet! ; )

diannejacob July 29, 2011 at 9:11 am

Okay, you’re right. It is much less romantic than I envisioned. Re P.S. I took the bag of toasted pine nuts back to the store and sent them an email. At the bottom of my post is Trader Joe’s response. And P.P.S. Yes, I did lose a pound or two. Saving grace.

cybercita July 30, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I had pine nut mouth last summer after eating Trader Joe’s pine nuts. Nothing tasted right for weeks! If I make pesto this summer, it will be with walnuts or with pine nuts from Italy.

Betty July 30, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Almost two years ago I had pine nut mouth (twice) and have not eaten pine nuts since. Both times lasted about two weeks, and they were miserable ones. I didn’t figure out what the problem was until the second time it happened, and I researched and then realized that I had eaten pine nuts before both episodes. The upside was that I lost weight both times. 🙂 Since then, I’ve been using walnuts in my pesto. No problems there!

El August 1, 2011 at 6:52 am

This is very helpful I have the same problem and do think it’s better when they’re bought from Italy through a specialty purveyor. Mostly, however, I use almonds or pistachios for pesto. Delicious!

diannejacob August 1, 2011 at 7:34 am

Sorry to hear you have the same problem, El. I have not tried either nut for pesto and will have to give them a whirl. Thanks.

todd August 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm

I myself think pesto is so last century, but if it is what you like then I say good eats! I like to keep it simple, though I do from time to time endeavor to the complex side as I love to cook complex dishes to show off my culinary skills to my good friends, but practically speaking this is a non-starter for daily cooking.

Please visit my food blog at http://www.grateful-gourmet.com for simple and tastey recipes that will please everyone!

Rita August 3, 2011 at 6:00 am

I just finished making pesto; in fact that is next Monday’s post. I will surely make note ot this Pine Mouth Syndrome. I have a Food Saver and keep all my nuts vaccum sealed. I once made pesto with almonds and it was great.
Rita

diannejacob August 3, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Yes, there are lots of links in my post, in the comments, and in the linked pieces. Great idea to vacuum seal the nuts. I keep most of mine in the freezer.

Mariko August 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm

I recently had some bad pine nuts at a very well respected restaurant, and the rest of the dinner was ruined. As was dessert. As was the rest of my night. AUGH!
I let the chef know, and he had no idea. My husband had the same reaction to the pine nuts at dinner, so I know it wasn’t in my head. I almost want to swear off pine nuts altogether. I like to put mac nuts in pesto these days.

diannejacob August 16, 2011 at 8:55 am

That is weird that it hit you so fast. Mine took a few days to take effect. I hope the bitter mouth didn’t last long.

Cristina August 16, 2011 at 10:21 am

I am a lawyer in San Francisco and we are looking for individuals who have experienced an aftertaste or other adverse reactions from eating Pine Nuts from Trader Joe’s. Particularly, we are seeking San Francisco Bay Area folks who can provide us with information about when and where they purchased the pine nuts, the symptoms they experienced, whether they still have the pine nuts, and whether they saw a warning on the package of pine nuts. If you can provide any information, please contact me at cristina.rubke@sflaw.com.

diannejacob August 16, 2011 at 10:25 am

Thanks Cristina. Readers, she told me on the phone that someone in Europe did a PhD on this subject with more than 200 people, and most of them were affected by pine nuts from Trader Joe’s.

patsy August 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I HAD pine nut mouth from some Trader Joe’s and so did my husband and a few friends. It took awhile to figure out what it was — it finally went away. It is a good reminder to check the Country of Origin on a lot of products.

diannejacob August 23, 2011 at 3:43 pm

So a big group of you had pine nut syndrome? Odd that you all had it at the same time.

I’m not sure what that will tell you, Patsy, to check the country of origin. It’s more about the variety of nut sold.

Tara Mataraza Desmond August 24, 2011 at 10:07 am

Dianne, I’m bringing up the rear on this one. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this! My husband was complaining of EXACTLY this after pignole cookies at Christmas time. I thought he was unfairly attributing some weird flavor thing to the innocent pine nut. But he has a total aversion to them and I haven’t been able to convince him to let me use them since. He will feel so vindicated when he sees this! (And I’m disappointed because now I’ll really never be able to cook with pine nuts in our house again.)

diannejacob August 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

Yes, I have stayed away from them as well, Tara! Can’t say I blame him.

The thing is, I ate pine nuts with abandon before this happened, so it must have been the type of nuts that Trader Joe’s imported. Hope to get back to using them at some point. Don’t give up on him.

Kimberley September 16, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Dianne,

Just styled and shot an image this week that included pine nuts and opted not to eat them for fear of pine mouth. I contacted the seller to find where they were from (China), and between that and their small size and strong pine smell, I was too paranoid to eat any, as tempting as it was. Such a shame!

diannejacob September 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Well, it doesn’t affect everyone, Kimberely, but I can’t say I blame you. My husband ate them and didn’t have a problem. What I realized recently is that it was the second time I had contracted it. The first time I never figured out why some foods tasted so bitter.

Cathy November 23, 2011 at 11:18 am

I have had the same experience in the last week after eating Trader Joe’s Dry Roasted Pignolias. Of all times to have this taste disturbance right before Thanksgiving! The bag says they are a product of Russia or Korea. I think it’s amazing that TJ’s doesn’t think this is significant. They should pull these. They say this causes issues in some but not in others. How many people even KNOW about this enough to report it as caused by pine nuts. My doctor thought it was probably caused by a virus. By doing my own research on the web, I discovered others with my same issue and this “pine mouth” reaction and many postings in blogs like yours had eaten TJ’s pine nuts.
I’ll look on the bright side….This is one way to prevent overeating during the holidays!

diannejacob November 23, 2011 at 11:41 am

Cathy, how annoying! You may be one of the few not overindulging. My pine mouth syndrome lasted at least two weeks. I haven’t had pesto since, or eaten anything with pine nuts in it. I hope I can go back to those foods one day, but right now I’m kind of scared!

Cathy November 23, 2011 at 11:53 am

I don’t blame you for shying away from them. You need your taste buds in good working order! Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Erin November 27, 2011 at 9:06 am

I just discovered that I have Pine Mouth SyndromeI! I added the deceitful little nuts to a dish I made for Thanksgiving dinner and haven’t enjoyed anything I’ve eaten for the last two days. I still have the bitter taste after vigorous brushing, flossing and using mouthwash several times a day which I’m sure will result in tissue damage before it goes away.

I purchased the dry toasted pignolias at TRADER JOE’S on 11/23/11. There is a lable on the back of the package that states Some individuals may experience a reaction to eating pine nuts, characterized by a lingering bitter or metallic taste. They are a product of Korea, Russia and Vietnam roasted in the USA.

diannejacob November 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Oh no. Sorry to hear that, Erin. At least now TJ’s has that small label on the back of the bag. That is an improvement from before.

Jo McIntyre December 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I have just found out this must be what I have from reading all this feedback. I ate a big dollop of fried pine-nuts three days ago, and since then have had this most annoying foul taste in my mouth after eating or drinking. It must be this. Trick is, I’m in New Zealand and bought a packet from a New World Supermarket in the city of Dunedin. They are not in a refrigerated area, and because they are expensive, I bought the cheap house brand. I hope this doesn’t last through Christmas – but, as already noted, the upside is the weight starts to come off because eating is so revolting! Buggar!

diannejacob December 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Yes, horrible, isn’t it? I’m glad you figured it out. I didn’t realize what was happening until my husband Googled “bitter taste in mouth.” I hope it goes away quickly. I haven’t bought pine nuts since, nor have I ordered anything in restaurants that involves pesto sauce.

bob February 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm

First, I LOVE Trader Joe’s. I’ve shopped there for years and continue to shop at a great grocery store! With that said, I bought pine nuts at Trader Joe’s a couple months ago.. I ate most of the bag in salads with no ill effects. However, twice I popped a handful into my mouth before bedtime. The 2nd time was lead to two WEEKS of my taste buds telling me everything was bitter and metallic. A horrible experience. the only way i figured it out was finding other people’s comments on the internet. Googled “metallic and bitter taste” and up popped a very long story about a person eating pine nuts and 2 days later the bitterness occured. Same for me. I tossed the nuts in the trash. Later I found a 2nd bag in the drawer and before tossing those it the trash I saw on the bag printed clearly, “may cause bitterness” or something like that. Here is my complaint with Trader Joe’s. If they did more research, they would probably find that pine nuts are not the problem. Most likely it is the source: that is, chemicals used (China) or substituting inedible pine nuts for edible. If i recall on the package it said the nuts come from Russia, Vietnam and someother place. Trader Joe’s should get their pine nuts from a reputable source!!!!

By the way, it took several weeks before all the bitterness went away!!!

diannejacob February 7, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Yes, we had a similar experience, Bob. My husband searched on the terms and figured out that my problem was from pine nuts. The little disclaimer on the Trader Joe’s bag appeared after I complained. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

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