The Great Pine Nut Mystery

Pine nuts have caused an unusual sensory disturbance that has driven countless people absolutely NUTS. You open a packet of pine nuts, pop some into your mouth and mix the rest into a dish. Two days later, your world is turned upside-down, as a repulsive bitter-metallic taste dominates all that you attempt to ingest for the next 1-2 weeks or more. The coffee tastes awful, and so does the toast… and the tomatoes, and the jam. OMG just what’s going on???

You might perhaps be wondering why…

1. you have been enjoying pine nuts for all your life without any problems and now, this;
2. it has been previously reported but no effort has been made to warn you;
3. your doctors hadn’t an inkling of it and suggested all sorts of frightening tests and scans that yielded no answers but a perpetuated fear of liver disease and brain disorder;
4. your supermarket received complaints from many customers but did nothing about it;
5. … they aren’t nuts, they’re seeds, yet they’re called nuts.

The pine nut syndrome (also known as ‘pine mouth’) was first described by a Belgian anesthesiologist in 2001, when a colleague’s second episode of taste disturbance and concurrent complaints by family and friends who shared a dish prepared from the same package of pine nuts raised the alarm. Several local case reports and taste experiments later, this phenomenon was diagnosed and published in the European Journal of Emergency Medicine [1] with many question marks and zero answers. Yet ironically, despite this ’emergency’ label, the pine nut syndrome remained appallingly unknown and unexplained, under-described and under-researched.

The years of 2001 – 2008 remained a mysterious vacuum on this topic until the recent boom of blogging mania. A handful of perceptive food bloggers [David Lebowitz, Roger Hyam, PinchMySalt, Babyccino, etc etc] linked their symptoms to pine nuts and wrote about their experiences, attracting hundreds and thousands of ‘me too! I ate pine nuts too!’ responses from all over America and Europe. Yet oodles of complaints to supermarkets and food authorities later, these products stubbornly remain on the market, with complaints snubbed with excuses like ‘no serious health complications’ or ‘just a few isolated cases does not warrant a boycott’. This prompted Munk, an assistant professor in Emergency Medicine (ah, ‘Emergency’ again), to make yet another case report in the Journal of Medical Toxicology this January, 2010 [2], calling it an ‘EMERGING problem’, a good 9 years after the first reports. Gee.

Good news is that the food and news agencies [USA, UK, Netherlands, Denmark…] are finally starting to shed some light on this phantom phenomenon, that growing awareness is helping people to identify their symptoms. Not so good news is that there aren’t any real answers yet – just hypothetical ideas based on a couple of diagnostic studies.

Do you want to know more? I want to know more. We all want to know more, don’t we? Read on for more about…what is so scientifically unusual about the pine nut syndrome, a review of the current research status,  the pine nut species we’ve been eating, or to find out about me and the research team, and how you could make a valuable contribution to the research by sharing your experience, telling us where you got your pine nuts from and taking time to complete the survey.

(1) Mostin, M. (2001). Taste disturbances after pine nut ingestion. Presented at the XXXVIII Congress of the Society for Clinical Toxicology (abstract). Journal of Emergency Medicine, 8(1), 76.
(2) Munk, M-D. (2010). “Pine Mouth” Syndrome: Cacogeusia following ingestion of pine nuts (genus: Pinus). An emerging problem? Journal of Medical Toxicology, 6, 158-159.

About grrrrracey

I love to eat, I love to cook, and I love to dig into every mystery about food!
This entry was posted in General Information, The Great Pine Nut Mystery. Bookmark the permalink.

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