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?