Pine Nut Syndrome Thesis Completed!

Hello readers!

My 150-page pine nut thesis is finally completed and it has been a huge success :) Thank you all for your contributions to this research: the provision of bitter samples, scientific expertise, industry information, pine nut growing experience, detailed PNS accounts, insightful observations and not to mention the encouragements and friendly email exchanges that fueled my engine over the past 9 nutty months.

I know that many people have been eagerly anticipating the results of the research and I apologize for my long overdue posts! I had intended to get down to it immediately after the defense and critical discussions (on 16 May 2011), but I was immediately whisked away for other academic business in Copenhagen…and a few days after I had my bags packed and started my internship in the hills of Switzerland! Thankfully for a long weekend and for being isolated in this new foreign land, I’ve finally got some quiet time and got right down to writing…

This post first provides an overview of the research and further details will be discussed in greater detail in the different pages. I have revised the old pages with the most updated information from this research. Do check them out!

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

The main objective of this research was to describe the prevalence and the elements of the syndrome, as well as to establish the source (botanical and industry) of the problem. In simpler terms, I wanted to collect evidence to explain why PNS is a problem to be solved, and then to figure out how it can be solved (i.e. by finding out what change in the industry has resulted in the sales of problem pine nuts and whether the problem seeds can be told apart from non-problem seeds). Based on the detailed information collected, there were several insights into the possible causes and mechanisms of the taste disturbance, however, these hypotheses remain to be tested and we’re currently applying for a grant to continue the research (takes at least a year and it is not guaranteed). Right now, the main goal is to get ‘em PNS pine nuts off the market!

GENERAL OVERVIEW ON PNS

The problem was first diagnosed in 2001 by the Belgian Poisons Centre with few cases reported in the number of years following that. Scientific information on the syndrome is lacking and there is a general attitude of dismissal by the authorities and retailers towards PNS being a non-health issue due to the low frequency of reports and due to most (read: BUT NOT ALL) cases resolve on its own within 1-2 weeks. (See page: ‘Health Issue‘ for more information.) Since late 2008/early 2009 there has been a spike in the number of complaints on the Internet and to the authorities. This coincided with the rocketing pine nut prices due to a poor crop in 2009.

“…researchers have not found any safety issues…and it seems to affect a relatively small number of people….” (Whole Foods, USA)
 
“It is about two years ago…over a long time we ate a lot of pine nuts in dishes, as a snack and so on. I still have complaints (especially bread and wine still taste bitter and like metal)…” (Dutch consumer)

BACKGROUND ON PINE NUTS

Pine nuts are mostly harvested from natural forests, which bears crops every two years, and good-bad harvests go in periodic cycles of up to 10 years depending on species and environmental conditions. Prices change according to supply (demand is always high) and smaller pine nuts sell for cheaper. There are more than 100 species of pine nuts, of which more than 20 of them are known to be used for food consumption but only a few are distributed internationally with the rest remaining for local consumption. What usually determines the use of a pine species for food production is its economic viability based on factors such as seed size and seed yield. China has a diverse pine nut flora and exports multiple species of pine nuts, however the different species are not differentiated on the commercial market. One problem species has dealt a severe blow to the reputation of all the other good Chinese pine nuts that have been valuable to the market for years. I was told that an abundant crop is expected in Aug-Oct 2011 and hopefully then the pine nut market returns to the pre-PNS state.

REASONS FOR LOW REPORTING FREQUENCIES

There were many reasons for the difficulties in reporting, for instance, (1) trouble establishing link with pine nuts due to the 1-3 days delay of symptoms, (2) pine nuts being previously eaten with no problems, (3) pine nuts tasting fine at point of consumption, (4) lack of awareness of the syndrome both by the public and the medical doctors, (5) not all people being affected, (6) changing of supermarket supplies means that the same brand can differ in composition from batch to batch, (7) some people are only mildly affected and did not seek a diagnosis / did not report, but realized it upon being told by those who were more badly affected. See page ‘Problem Underestimated‘ for more information.

“…This happened to me in 2004 but I didn’t relate the problem to pine nuts. I still am not sure it was that back then, but it lasted 3 months. I went to every medical specialist, had all kinds of tests and nothing turned up. Then it just went away. Now that I look back, I remember just one time ever purchasing a very large bag of pine nuts at Costco because they were a good price for a very large amount. I am thinking now, that I must have munched on them for a period of three months and when they ran out, that was when the symptoms disappeared. This is the weirdest thing I ever heard. Last time I had an MRI of my brain, and an endoscopy. It was very frightening. I had no other symptoms beside taste disturbance.” (American consumer)

The structure of this thesis can be broken down into 3 main studies…

STUDY #1: CHARACTERIZATION SURVEY

A worldwide survey was conducted and a total of 434 complete case reports from 23 countries were collected for a thorough description of the syndrome (individuals factors, pine nuts consumed, nature of symptoms). Cases involved people of different ages, genders, ethnicity and health conditions with large differences in individual sensitivity towards the adverse taste effect. Both raw and roasted pine nuts, with or without off-flavours and originating from different retail/supply chains were implicated, and the trigger dosage was reported to be as low as 2-3 seeds.

Check out the page on ‘Who Sold Them‘ for a full list of retailers that have sold pine nuts that caused PNS.

STUDY #2: IDENTIFICATION OF PROBLEM PINE NUTS

A total of 56 complaint samples from 8 countries were collected and 7 different pine nut species (5 species of Chinese origin) were identified amongst the samples. A variety of P. armandii was consistently observed across all the complaint samples. See page Pine Nut Species for details on the outcomes of this study — including a pictures and descriptions of the differences between the commercial pine nut species.

STUDY #3: INVESTIGATING INDIVIDUAL SENSITIVITY

A testing of a fixed dosages from the same non-expired supermarket batch of pine nuts on 21 (willing) human subjects caused symptoms in 19 subjects to varying extents. There was no relation found between genetic bitter taste sensitivity and the ability to be afflicted with PNS.

The details of these studies can be found on the page: ‘Research Findings‘. Do check it out!

The End of a Nutty Chapter

This post ends the first chapter of my active research into the Pine Nut Syndrome. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey! I might not have found a remedy nor the mechanism, but I hope that the information provided here has given some relief to you, and that it will help to prevent more people from having to suffer this syndrome.

As of 1st June 2011, I have begun a new stint at the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, thus my involvements with pine nuts will now have to take a back seat as I invest my full energies for a new cause. Nevertheless, I will continue this blog for the purpose of disseminating information and raising awareness of this syndrome.

Please continue to spread the information and inform your local retailers and authorities! I hope to pursue further research into this, but as academics would be aware of, the first major obstacle is the FUNDING, followed by the TIME that it takes have it approved. Meanwhile, I will continue to run this blog as a comprehensive source of information on PNS, so stay tuned…! 

Posted in Announcements, Research Updates, The Great Pine Nut Mystery | 14 Comments

Research Update: Pine Nut Species and Varieties

Thesis progress

I am currently 90% through with the data analysis and 20% through with writing this nutty thesis. Firstly, a big thanks to you all for your valuable contributions to this website and research! I’m fighting really tight deadlines now but as the messy picture has started to clear up, I shall begin a gradual process of sharing some discussions and my struggles with the last bit of data analysis (hopefully someone out there can help me out). My final colloquium is scheduled exactly 1 month from now. As appreciation for your interest and contributions to this research, I would like to extend an invitation to the first five persons who is interested in attending my final presentation here in Wageningen University, The Netherlands to send an email to  pinenutsyndrome@gmail.com and I will make the arrangements for my special guests. :)

Pine Nut Species and Varieties

Several weeks ago, I had received a very good comment from Dr Charles Rhora of Rhora’s Nut Farm & Nursery regarding the variety of P. armandii that their farm is cultivating. I had been intending to make a post regarding this but time constraints and procrastination have delayed it till now.

Dr Rhora had expressed that P. armandii grown on the farm produces good edible seeds and indeed, it is true that there are more than one variety of P. armandii  (up to 5 official varieties according to botanical literature (Eckenwalder, J.E. (2009). Conifers of the World; The complete reference, 1st Ed. Timber Press, Inc: Portland Oregon.). It seems that only one thick-shelled variety originating from the region of Shaanxi and Shanxi of China are causing the bitterness (INC, 2011). The thin-shelled varieties (such as the one grown by Dr Rhora, according to information on his website) do not cause bitterness, however, at the moment, distinguishing species is difficult enough, let alone the variants of it, hence it has been recommended by the Chinese authorities that P. armandii be avoided altogether to simplify matters. The report that furnished this information was published by the International Nut and Fruit Council. I have included an excerpt below, the full report can be accessed [HERE].

Source: http://www.nutfruit.org/inc-projects/chinese_pinenuts

To continue the discussion about varieties, further readings into botanical literature have revealed that subdivisions of botanical species are controversial and often disputed and necessitate DNA-based investigations for more comprehensive classifications of species and their varieties. Single species can exist in hundreds of variants, of which only a few may be officially recognized. A couple of different analytical groups have already informed me of their efforts to develop their DNA-profiling methods and I look forward to hearing more from them in the coming months.

Meanwhile, we will have to rely on industry information and visual identifications. There has been a recent press release also by the International Nut and Fruit Council. You can download the pdf document of the press release from HERE*. For your convenience, I will summarize the main points from the document: *I was informed that the link to download the document does not work and I can’t get it to work either, so you could access it by googling for “INC press release pine nuts” and it will be the #7 hit!

1) Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chinese Tree Nuts Association are about to release  at the end of May, a handbook with pictures and descriptions detailing the species of pine nuts exported from China.

2) They have issued a statement that P. armandii (regardless of variety) should be avoided.

3) The Chinese, English and Botanical names of the various species have been listed in the document, I’ve copied the table here:

Source: Press release by INC

As you can see from above, there is quite a selection of Chinese pine nuts on the market and a good many of them are nicely edible, unfortunately this incident with the bitter-causing P. armandii variant has tainted the reputation of Chinese pine nuts.

Identification of Pine Nut Species

For the second part of my thesis, I have documented the identification of pine nuts on the market using a variety of information sources including (1) commercial information (2) pictures on trade sites (3) reference samples collected from authorities and suppliers (4) botanical descriptions (5) fatty acid profiles and (6) seed counts and physical characteristics. Still, I am ‘bombed’ with new information every now and then regarding the species on the market, posing new difficulties in the identifications. I’m hoping that the handbook to be released at the end of May by the Chinese authorities will shed some light on this issue.

For now, here is a clear picture of the 8 reference species that I have collected and identified for this research. See the differences? The key of identifications is below:

A = P. armandii / Armand pine / Hua shan song 华山松 |K = P. koraiensis / Korean pine / Chinese Red Pine / hong song 红松 | S = P. sibirica / Siberian stone pine / Siberian Cedar / xiboliya hongsong 西伯利亚红松 | P = P. pinea / Mediterranean stone pine | G = P. gerardiana / Chilghoza pine | M = P. massoniana / Masson’s pine / ma wei song 马尾松 | U1 = P. yunnanensis according to industrial sources and trade sites but does not match botanical information nor fatty acid profile and remains to be determined (HELP!!) | U2 = P. pumila according to the provider of the sample but again there are no other sources to back this up (HELP AGAIN??).

Even though my thesis will be submitted and defended before the release of the new handbook, I will try my best to get my hands on it and share the information with you.

Wow what a lengthy post! Alright it’s back to thesis writing :) Hoping to share again soon!

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Research Updates: 06/03/11

I have been receiving quite a few emails recently inquiring about the progress of this pine nut research, and then I realized that it has indeed been some time since my last post!

Time really flies when it gets busy, and with more people (researchers / reporters / companies / consumers) discovering this blog, communications work is getting rather unmanageable alongside this research (more emails means less time for experimental work!). Hence, I ask for your understanding for slow responses and comments or questions that I miss out! Any new developments will be shared here for all of you, after all that’s my ultimate goal of creating this blog site — for the exchange of information, and for speeding up the process of informing the world about this pine nut mystery. Thank you all for the encouragements and for the great ideas and enthusiastic responses in participating in my surveys and home tests! Let’s take down pine mouth together!!

My Research Goals

(1) Characterize the pine nut syndrome in relation to individual factors so as to establish the pine mouth case definition [to convince the authorities and dealers that these pine nuts have to be taken off the market]

(2) Determine which are the pine nuts causing the problem  [to point out the pine nuts  that are to be controlled for]

(3) Devise a method for identifying the problem pine nuts [to lay out an easy method for picking out the problem pine nuts and prevent them from getting on our supermarket shelves]

Many people have been pressing me to figure out the causes and taste mechanisms and remedies for pine mouth. I can only say for now that I have some hypotheses that remain to be tested, and that itself would be a huge project by itself. My goals with this thesis is to push for action to remove these pine nuts from consumer reach, and to aid the dealers and retailers in identifying the pine nuts to be removed from the shelves. Removing the bitter-causing products would mean eliminating pine mouth altogether, and the next steps for me would then to apply for a research grant to unravel the workings of this strange phenomenon with a phD project.

Current Thesis Status

SURVEY: Approximately 400 complete responses [collecting data]

SAMPLES: 56 bitter-causing samples [collection closed]

HOME EXPERIMENTS: taste kits have been sent to selected pine mouth victims who have agreed to participate in this experiment [collecting data]

SENSORY EXPERIMENTS: 21 friends have bravely agreed to ingest a fixed dosage of these pine nuts in a controlled experiment. [collecting data]

By the end of the second week of March, I intend to complete my data collection and begin with the analysis of this massive amount of information. It takes time to make sense of it all and present it in a scientific and reliable manner, but I am looking forward to having something to share in approximately 1-2 months.

Newspaper Feature

On a bright note, research on the pine nut syndrome has hit the spotlight with a nice article in a national Dutch newspaper, the NRC handelsblad (12 Feb 2011 issue), with an interview with my professor and I, and of course, a mention of this blog. Another point towards pine mouth awareness! Thank you all for making this research possible with your  reports, sample contributions and enthusiastic participation in these experiments!!

 

Posted in Research Updates, The Great Pine Nut Mystery | 6 Comments

New Journal Publication in Journal of Toxicology!

Good news from the earlier researchers of the pine nut syndrome: the scientists of the Belgian Poisons Centre who first reported the syndrome in 2001 [Abstract here] and the scientists of the Nestle Research Centre who developed the method for botanical identification of pine nuts [Abstract here] have collaborated to investigate the botanical origin of the commercial pine nuts responsible for the taste disturbances…….

As of 18th January 2011, the article has been ACCEPTED by the Journal of Toxicology, and is now accessible [HERE]!

Reference: Destaillets, F., Cruz-Hernandez, C., Giuffrida, F., Dionisi, F., Mostin, M., and Verstegen, G. (2011). Identification of the botanical origin of commercial pine nuts responsible for dysgeusia by Gas-Liquid Chromatography analysis of fatty acid profile. Journal of Toxicology, Article in Press.

In a nutshell, this study concludes that P. armandii pine nuts were present pure or in mixture in all 16 samples given to the Belgian Poisons Centre by pine mouth victims. Indeed, it was already rather clear from my earlier posts that the bitter samples (currently at #53) all contain p. armandii and do not all contain the other species. So then why rejoice? Because when research is published in an international peer-reviewed journal, it can then be quoted reliably. The implications of this paper are thus (1) defined way of controlling the problem (problem species identified) and (2) published research can be used to inform and urge the involved parties to control the problem. At least, that’s what I believe and hope that is true.

It will be months before my own research has the possibility of being published (takes months to a year from completion to acceptance in a journal), that is why I gather and share as much as I can on this blog such that consumers and retailers can be informed sooner on how to make the right choices, and hopefully this can help prevent more victims before proper regulatory measures are in place (such things normally take a very long time).  However, unlike peer-reviewed journals, acceptance of my personal observations and findings is entirely dependent on your trust of my personal integrity and capabilities.

For those of you who do not wish to read the whole paper, here is the abstract:

ABSTRACT. Over the last 10 years complaints were increasingly reported from consumers that experienced dysgeusia following the consumption of pine nuts. In the present study, pine nuts samples (N=16) from consumers that reported dysgeusia have been analyzed to identify the botanical origin of criticl pine nuts samples. The fatty acid composition of the samples was performed and diagnostic index values were used to identify the botanical origin of the samples. Pinus armandii nuts were identified in all the samples pure or in mixture with P. koraiensis nuts. P. armandii is not reported as edible pine nuts by the World Health Organization (WHO). This study confirmed that consumption of P. armandii nuts may lead to dysgeusia. Based on the present study and previous work, we advise import companies to trade pine nuts from traditionally recognized species such as P. pinea, P. sibirica, P. koraiensis, or P. gerardiana.

 

* Just an add-on, that pictures of these ‘traditionally recognized species’ can be found on my page on ‘Pine Nut Species’.

 

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Updated Pine Nut Species Page

Demand for pine nuts is growing rapidly, too rapidly for supplies to catch up. But as long as consumers are wanting to buy the product, supermarkets, distributors and suppliers are pressured in turn to deliver the pine nuts at reasonable prices or risk losing business.

Meeting the demand is, however, not a simple case of picking and delivering. Pine nuts are low turnover crop, taking 25 years before a pine tree starts to produce seeds for consumption, with harvests every 2 years and good crop years coming in infrequent cycles of 5-10 years. You don’t always have it when you want it. Thus the availability of supplies have a huge impact on the prices of pine nuts (see Penny’s pine nut blog), driving an increased volume of import from the East.

There are many species of pine nuts, numerous species are edible (20-30) and several of them originate from China. They are all labeled as ‘pine nuts’ on the packaging, mentioning nothing more than the country of origin (that is not always reliable either). Due to the lack of information about the differences between species, it is very difficult for people involved in the pine nut food supply chain (retail – distributor – processing plant – harvestor) to control for species and quality, and efforts are largely limited to the sorting of seeds by sizes.

Currently (16/01/11), I have 48 bitter-causing samples from 7 countries and I have visually picked out 6 different species (not all of which I was able to identify). A 7th species of Pakistan origin was not found in the bitter-causing samples but is commonly available in supermarkets.

I have updated the Pine Nut Species page to include pictures of these 7 species together with their origins and measured physical characteristics of the samples I have on hand. Hope that it will help everyone to discern the pine nuts that they are eating. Feel free to share information but do remember to link back to this blog.

Posted in Announcements, Research Updates, The Great Pine Nut Mystery | 2 Comments

New (Simplified) Survey

Happy New Year!

I have launched a new survey to continue the collection of reports of pine mouth experiences. In the past 3 months, a total of more than 300 pine mouth sufferers from 21 countries have taken the time to fill in a lengthy survey that was designed at a time when little was known about the syndrome. I am now in the process of crunching the data and chasing respondents to clarify information.

With a better understanding of the syndrome, I have created a new survey to include only the most important pieces of information. It will now take only 10-15 minutes to complete.  Please take some time to report your pine mouth experience — the information you provide will allow us to better characterize the syndrome and gauge how serious and widespread the problem is.

We hope to use this information not only for the study, but to persuade the authorities and relevant parties to give this problem more urgent attention. It would also be good if you would feedback to your supermarket and food safety authority.

Please wait till the end of your pine mouth episode before taking the survey to report your pine mouth experience as I would need to know the total number of days that your symptoms lasted. You may revisit the page Do the Survey at a later date, or click on the button below, which will take you directly to the survey site.

 

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Last Update 2010 : 18/12/10

THANK YOU

Dear readers, thank you all for your contributions of information and pine nuts! These 3 months of research have been really intense. There is now a lot of information at hand  and that will take some time to process. I do look forward to sharing our results, as soon as they are ready! Meanwhile, I will continue to make these blog updates, which are a representation of my current observations — meaning they still await verification.

SURVEY

The current survey will be accessible online until Christmas day. At the time that it was set up, it was designed to extract as much information as possible, because very little was known about the syndrome at the start of the research. We really appreciate all the time that survey respondents have taken to answer every question and provide additional detail, ideas and encouragements! After the new year, I will be launching a new (shorter) survey that will be simplified to collect the most important information. There will thus be a 7-10 day gap of data-collection. I strongly urge all pine mouth sufferers to continue filling in the survey after the new year, so that we have a measure of the magnitude of the problem and how widespread it is (this I plan to report to the authorities).

SAMPLES

I have received 41 bitter-causing samples to date. The more we receive, the stronger the case for pinpointing the problem pine nuts. Please send an email to pinenutsyndrome@gmail.com if you have samples to send, thank you!!

ON LEAVE

Yes, Grace is taking a break and asks for your understanding! As an international student 10,000 km away from home, I miss my family very much and will be with them till the new year. There will be no updates till then, but if you do have important information to share or samples to send, please do continue writing to pinenutsyndrome@gmail.com. Here’s wishing everyone a…


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Pine Nut Species + Update: 05/12/10

I have received 40 problem samples (5 countries) and >200 survey responses (21 countries!!) to date. TWENTY ONE COUNTRIES, and I haven’t even reached out to the non-English-speaking ones. While US, Canada and Europe have been on the board for some time, I have recently been receiving new complaints from Australia and New Zealand. Are we on the brink of a global epidemic? WHEN will the suppliers and supermarkets start paying heed to this issue?

It is now week 13 of research. The survey will be available online until Christmas day. I have just begun inspecting the survey information in detail and highlighting important blanks– meaning that I will be contacting many of you soon for clarifications in order to improve the quality of the data. I’ll save the survey talk for another time when I have meaningful things to share about it, because right now I’d first like to have a show-and-tell about the different pine nut species.

The difficulty in avoiding problem pine nuts is that:

  1. There are numerous edible pine species but are all marketed under one label: ‘pine nuts’.
  2. One country of origin produces and exports several different species of pine nuts, but products are simply labeled: e.g. ‘pine nuts from China’.
  3. Chinese pine nuts are frequently sold as mixtures of different species, complicating matters.
  4. Seeds are grouped by size and their varieties mis-labeled by suppliers (intentionally, or unintentionally?), making it difficult to identify.
  5. Morphological (form and structure) variations within species means that some seeds of one species are bound to resemble those of other species.

With my novice skills, I have visually sorted the different species of pine seeds in the samples I have received. I am still sourcing the expertise for the accurate identification of species, but meanwhile I would like to introduce your eyes to the different types of Asian pine nuts that are currently on the market… by photos, of course!

40 problem samples (species referred to from left to right):

  • 40 with the 1st species (p. armandii) [clearly observed]
  • 20 with the 2nd species (p. koraiensis) [clearly observed]
  • 4 with the 3rd species (p. sibirica) [uncertain, looks very much like 1st species but rounder and slightly different shade]
  • 2 with the 4th species (unidentified species) [clearly observed]
  • 2 with the 5th species (unidentified species) [clearly observed]
  • 1 with the 6th species (unidentified species) [picture -> right!]

Once again, here’s a close-up of the species I have seen in all the problem samples so far:

Many people have been asking me about the cause of the problem, whether they can return to eating pine nuts, and which pine nuts they can eat. Each time I receive such emails, I really wished I could answer with 100% certainty, but I CAN’T because I am still in the early stages of researching the problem. What I can say though, is that several pine mouth sufferers from September – October have reported good news: that they’ve eaten Mediterranean pine nuts and are happily pine-mouth-free.

Update (15/12/10): It has been brought to my attention that the long cylindrical worm-like pine nuts shown in this picture below fits better into the description of the Pakistan pine nuts (Chilghoza pine or p. gerardiana). Both species have been on the international market for years with no complaints. They are also easy to visually pick out if they do come in a mixture because they are a lot longer and have a smoother and more yellowish colour than the Chinese pine nuts discussed above. I’m still waiting for p. gerardiana samples for reference, and when I do obtain them, I will upload a new photo!

As for the 4th species found in the samples, it is likely that it is the Italian stone pine. My apologies for the confusion, and I will have this ascertained soon! Pine nut growers of p. gerardiana (Pakistan) and p. pinea (Italy), your help would be very much appreciated!


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New Case Report: The American Journal of Medicine

This morning I have just discovered a new case report on the Pine Nut Syndrome. While there are no answers yet (yes we are all tired of hearing this), each new mention in a medical journal means that more doctors can be aware of the problem and help diagnose and assure patients who come in with the taste disturbance. You can download the report for free here. Picard, F. and Landis, B. N. (2010). Pine Nut-induced Dysgeusia: An Emerging Problem! The American Journal of Medicine 123(11), page e3.

While ongoing work is done on the cause, we can all do our part to push it all along. The first step would be in raising awareness of the problem. Here’s how:

  1. Accurate reporting - the situation is currently extremely underreported. If you have had pine mouth, go the extra mile to inform your food safety authorities, and your supermarket. It’s because few people report it, that the parties involved in bringing the pine nuts to you are brushing it all off with remarks that ‘few people are being affected’.
  2. Spread information about pine mouth - I will ensure that this blog is up to date with a comprehensive collection of information on this syndrome and news of research on it. I hope to make it clear with this site that pine nut syndrome is a problem to be addressed seriously, regardless of whether or not there are any long-term medical implications (nobody knows yet). Do send the link to your local supermarket, food authorities, and spread it on sites with any mentions of pine nuts  (e.g. recipe sites)! 

Posted in Announcements, The Great Pine Nut Mystery | 1 Comment

The Mystery Grows – Call for Support!

IF ONLY solving the mystery were as simple as collecting the pine nut samples that DID cause bitterness and comparing them to pine nut samples that DID NOT cause bitterness.

Two weeks ago, I ate 3g (40 seeds) from a bag of pure p.armandii pine seeds bought from China. I came down with mild-moderate symptoms for 3-4 days. This monday, my two profs ate 3g each from the same bag, one came down with symptoms, one didn’t (lucky him). Fair enough — perhaps not everyone is susceptible to it. But the catch is: as I dealt my profs their dose of ‘poison’, I too ate 9g (120seeds), wondering if this time my symptoms would be more pronounced AND last longer. Guess what happened? Nothing! No symptoms at all! As I heaved a sigh of relief, a new cloud of doubt creeped in. So does this mean that not ALL p.armandii seeds cause a problem, that 1 or 2 problem seeds is enough to cause a reaction, and that this time I was lucky to miss out on one of those? Then, which seeds are they? The new problem thus arises : that now I have 32 samples of ‘bitter-causing pine seeds, but I don’t know exactly WHICH seeds in each packet cause a problem, if they already have been eaten. I can visually pick out seeds of a particular species, but I can’t ascertain which seed to put in as the ‘positive’ sample for the comparative analysis.

IF ONLY putting some pine nuts through an analysis produces chromatograms of peaks that flash ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘I’m not the one!’.

These two weeks I have been holed up in laboratory and engaged in several meetings. If I had been a little lagged with my email responses, it wasn’t because I was skiving. The preliminary chemical screenings are out, on the bright side, the  analytical method reveals pretty clear data. But that’s about it.  Nothing that can be meaningfully interpreted. The only thing that is clear now is that identifying the causative agent is not possible until it is ascertained that seeds in a sample very certainly gives pine mouth, and seeds in another sample very certainly doesn’t. Even so, the complexity of the chemical composition makes it difficult to pinpoint which is the possible compound.  Needle in a haystack. Unfortunately, this is beyond what I can achieve with in the few months of my masters thesis and soon I will be handed my diploma and told to leave. UNLESS, I stay on to do a phD to investigate this to the rock bottom. However, right now there are no funds for this project, (living on small contributions and volunteerism) so my profs and I are now seeking financial support to make this research possible. Help?

IF ONLY pine nut retailers would be able to reveal where they got their pine nuts from. IF ONLY pine nut suppliers would actually declare with plain honesty the identity and source of their pine nuts.

Unfortunately, for business reasons, retailers can’t reveal to me their suppliers, and suppliers won’t reveal their sources. So where are these bitter-causing pine nuts coming from? China. That’s all we know, but China is very big, you know. And China is a major producer and exporter of many species of delectable pine nuts, yet only one species is appearing to be a problem, and up till recently, it seems that only certain seeds / batches of this species might be incriminated. It would thus be difficult and unreasonable to say ‘Chinese pine nuts cause bitterness, take them off the market’. Special thanks goes out to Samios Foods of Brisbane, Australia — who cared enough for their customers to provide the product specifications from their supplier. The information is as such: (1) Inconsistency in pine nut supplies mean that supermarkets often have to change suppliers to meet demands. (2) If pine nuts are of mixed species, they were in this case, distributed ready-mixed, and the supermarket only re-packages them in small packets for sales. Absolves the supermarkets from some blame. (3) It was indicated ‘pinus pinea’ on the product specifications, however, the sample I received from the supermarket was clearly a majority of p.armandii, looking hardly anything like the long slender Italian stone pine seeds (Pinus pinea). I think it is time for local food authorities to use their power to trace down the source of the pine nuts that have been brought in for complaints.

It is just not that simple. In fact, the more we research into the problem, the more complicated it becomes, and the more perplexing it gets. Yet, I’m increasingly being pestered for answers to the problem. To put things into perspective, it has only been 2 months into the research.

Research is normally done behind tightly closed doors. Yet we have chosen to adopt a different approach here because this is a phenomenon that is adversely affecting many people. At the same time, pine mouth sufferers are our greatest resource and your contributions have very much formed the basis of our work so far. Several concerned individuals are warning me of the risks of information theft, and of research copycats, but hey, the final goal here is not to put my name on a paper, but to solve the problem and relieve pine nut eaters of their suffering. From the survey, I have now reports of pine mouth from 16 countries. YES, SIXTEEN!! It is a worldwide problem, and if the world can join forces to solve it, all the better.

I believe that it is important to get the word out, so that people know the existence of this syndrome, sufferers are able to diagnose their symptoms, doctors are able to consider pine nuts before putting patients through traumatizing scans, shops can take the necessary measures to avoid any disreputable suppliers, and suppliers of problem pine nuts can start wondering why less people are buying their pine nuts and enforce stricter measures of control.

The research done thus far is entirely reliant on a small amount of backup funds, volunteer expertise, and kind contributions from pine mouth sufferers who have gone an extra  mile to provide information and samples (thank you!!). We have now a solid plan for dissecting the problem, but research is expensive, and we have to look for proper financial support to continue pursuing this cause. Will the food authorities help? Pine nut producers? Anyone?

Posted in Announcements, Research Updates, The Great Pine Nut Mystery | 5 Comments