Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Pine Mouth," or: I have the weirdest problems

Ever hear of "pine mouth?" How about metallogeusia? No? Me either, until Wednesday.

On Monday, I made a cold noodle salad for our lunches this week. I used whole wheat spaghetti, peppers, onions, cabbage, spinach, and carrots with a ginger/garlic/soy dressing. On Tuesday, Jon texted me after he ate and said that the salad was delicious. I agreed but thought perhaps the cabbage or the red pepper flakes I sprinkled on top were making it a bit too bitter. Or maybe the dressing was old and going south?

On Tuesday night, Jon made chili and seasoned according to directions I left him. I was starving when I got home, with an awful headache, and pretty much inhaled dinner and dessert but I remember thinking that the blueberries in the apricot blueberry crisp I made tasted extra tart. We had leftover chili again last night and each bite had the most bitter finish and aftertaste. I couldn't think what we'd thrown in the pot that could be so bitter.

When I could still taste the bitterness after dessert, I finally had to ask Jon if his dinner tasted bitter and bad, and if he still had a bitter taste in his mouth like I did. He looked at me like I was crazy (admittedly, I am), so I dropped it. My curiosity got the better of me and later, I googled "bitter taste in mouth." I came up with a bunch of people with similar problems and no answers but it didn't take long before one forum post mentioned pine nuts...

Um, I ate pine nuts. On Sunday. I sauteed them in butter to make a glorious sauce in which I bathed equally glorious ravioli. And while I was making the sauce, I snacked on a few raw nuts. Naturally.

So I googled around some more and found out that pine nuts can, in fact, cause a lingering, bitter taste in one's mouth, officially known as metallogeusia. It begins a day or two after eating the nuts and can last from one to four weeks, apparently. No one has figured out exactly why this happens or what exactly is causing the phenomenon, but the suspicion seems to be focused on Asian varieties of pine nuts or nuts imported from China or other Asian countries. It also appears to be a relatively recent problem, showing up in just the last several years. It seems to affect people randomly. I'm unclear as to whether I am one of the random people it will now always affect, or if I was just randomly affected this time. Jon and our other dinner partner are not experiencing this peculiar problem. They also didn't snack on any raw nuts.

Anyway, a bunch of the people who chimed in on various blogs and forums specifically mentioned that they bought the offending pine nuts from Trader Joe's. I bought my pine nuts from Trader Joe’s.

I checked my open, half-eaten bag for the country of origin (Korea, Russia, Vietnam) and also found a disclaimer that I hadn't noticed before: “Some individuals may experience a reaction to eating pine nuts, characterized by a lingering bitter or metallic taste.”

I'm pretty disappointed that Trader Joe's would source a product with (what seems to be) a known issue like this, or from a vendor or region known to have this problem and think that slapping a disclaimer on the bag is sufficient. Even if the problem doesn't affect everyone, and seems to be more of an annoyance than a serious medical issue, I feel like this unpleasantry could be pretty well avoided simply by avoiding Asian pine nuts. Given the choice, I would certainly pay more for a product that won't make everything else I eat taste disgusting for two weeks. In the future, I'll certainly pay more attention to where I buy pine nuts and where they originated.  

The FDA acknowledges the problem and is working to analyze and monitor the situation. I called the SoCal FDA District Office to add my number to the stats, I'm curious to see if anyone calls me back.

If I can believe the packaging, then my pine nuts didn't come from China but I'm still pretty wary of their food exports, given their history of poisoning pets and babies. Just yesterday, I read Mark Bittman's opinion piece on his NY Times blog drawing some comparisons between China's "food safety scene" and our own in the U.S. Yum.

So there you go. Now you, too, know about "pine mouth," and how to avoid it - hopefully. If you find yourself suffering from pine nut-induced metallogeusia, you can try the suggested home remedies of drinking activated charcoal or aloe vera juice. I think I'm just going to wait out though and see what other weird problem I can rustle up for myself...

For more on "pine mouth:"


  1. How random! We always used to get our pine nuts from costco because you could get a huge bag at a great price...then we would refrigerate them (sometime freeze) to last longer. We used them all the time, pesto, toasted and on salad. I think the costco ones were imported from italy. I don't recall ever really munching on them raw though. I haven't had pine nuts in a few years though since they're now on my allergy list.
    Great internet sleuthing!

  2. Bummer about your allergies, Audrey. Allergies are so annoying and inconvenient. I wish we could figure out how to cure them...

    A few people mentioned that they experienced this problem with Costco pine nuts, but I don't know if the nuts were from Italy or Asia. I do know that I'll be nervous about eating pine nuts from now on!

    I still haven't heard back from the FDA, but Trader Joe's responded to my online inquiry - I've included it below. To their credit, they did give me a refund, no questions asked!

    Thank you for your feedback. We would like to extend our apologies for
    this unpleasant experience. We are aware that this has been an
    occurrence with some of our customers.

    This is not just an occurrence with Trader Joe's brand or source, and
    not everyone reacts to the natural pine oils like this. Despite
    extensive testing by the FDA, other governmental agencies and our
    supplier, no conclusion has been reached as to why "Pine Mouth" occurs.
    Unfortunately, there are no quick remedies or preventive measure we can
    take to ensure it doesn't happen again. Fortunately, all cases of
    pine-mouth resolve without treatment.

    There is no way to determine if this may occur with future batches.
    However, we can assure you that there are no pesticides used during the
    growth of pine nuts and there are no chemicals used in any processing of
    this product.

    I also wanted to make sure you are aware of our "Product Guarantee." If
    you are dissatisfied with any product purchased in our stores, you can
    take it back for an exchange or full refund. We stand behind our motto,
    "We tried it! We liked it! If you don't, bring it back for a full
    refund, no questions asked."

  3. I lied--the costco pinenuts are from China...just checked today. But the last time we had them were a few years ago.


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