Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Chinese pine mouth — ever had it?

When we were down in Louisiana a month or so ago, we made a pesto sauce. Turns out I was the only one who ate it. Afterward, for several days I couldn’t eat anything without it tasting really metallic and unpleasant. It seemed to me that it had to do with the pesto, but I couldn’t really say why. The pesto tasted fine. It lasted for about a week, this effect. Very, very unpleasant. Nothing tasted right.
Well, Julie just handed me a newsletter from a Philly organic market in which the store explained why it switched to more expensive pine nuts: a condition known as “pine mouth,” which makes all foods taste bitter and metallic for people afflicted with it. The store says that lots of their customers complained about the effect, so they switched from Chinese-supplied pine nuts to pine nuts from other countries, and have had no problems.
Turns out this really is a thing. From a USA Today report on pine mouth:


First described by a Belgian poison-control doctor in 2001, the rare syndrome can linger for up to two weeks. A recent article about it in the Journal of Medical Toxicology found dozens of anecdotal reports online.
Marc-David Munk, a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was struck with the syndrome himself and describes it in the Toxicology paper.
“It’s surprising to me that more people don’t know about it,” he says.
Although almost non-existent in the medical literature, the syndrome is certainly something people who have had it are aware of. In the past year, the Food and Drug Administration received 51 complaints of “taste disturbances” related to pine nuts. The agency hopes information from consumers and tests of pine nuts associated with this syndrome will help it determine what’s causing the problem, says spokesman Michael Herndon. Because it’s related only to taste, it’s not considered a public health problem, he says.


The mystery deepens. From a British newspaper account:

In reply to a group of pine mouth sufferers in Wales, the Food Standards Agency contacted doctors at the Brussels Poisons Centre, who have carried out tests on the pine nuts, but have been unable to identify any chemical differences between those that cause pine mouth and those that don’t.
The good news is that no pesticide or heavy metal contamination has been found in the pine nuts. The puzzling news is that while some people get pine mouth, others don’t, even though they’ve eaten the same batch of nuts.


Do you suppose this could be a Chinese pine nuts thing? I’m prepared to believe Chinese food products are tainted with anything. On the other hand, tests have shown no chemical difference in these nuts, and, as you’ve just read, some people get pine mouth from batches of nuts that affect others not at all.
All I know is that it was a very, very unpleasant thing, and I’m probably never going to eat pine nuts again, to avoid the risk. Bleah.

Comments read comments(11)
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Matushka Anna

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Wow, and I thought I just didn’t like pine nuts! Now I know what happened…

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posted July 19, 2010 at 10:34 pm

I had a case back in the Spring. It lasted a few days and then went away. As I love pine nuts I got right back on the horse after the taste cleared up and haven’t had a problem since.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 10:48 pm

The Doodle
Kramer: ya….Yes!….Yes! it’s back I can taste again. ( to a passerby) Hey! What’s the date today?
Passerby: The fifteenth.
Kramer: Fifteenth , Yes last day for the Macanaws. I can still make it. Wait.. Newman…
Newman: Sorry , last one . Would you want to suck the pit?
Kramer: ( fake laugh ) Look Hubert. It’s the mailman. You remember the mailman don’t you.
( unleashes a dog)
Dog proceeds to chase after Newman

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posted July 19, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I can remember my aunt telling me to always buy Italian pine nuts for making pesto. She said the other ones — Chinese and American — were too bitter.
Captcha: yet Salvatore

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Charles Cosimano

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:00 am

Obviously a bunch of nuts got loose.

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posted July 20, 2010 at 7:52 am

I always have a lot of basil in my garden and make lots of pesto. Only once have I had a bad reaction: bad taste long afterward (although I’m not sure I would have described it as metallic) and tight throat. This was a few years ago and had been a mystery until a read an article about pine mouth last week. Still, I guess I feel about pesto the way Rod feels about raw oysters–slight risk, definitely worth it.

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posted July 20, 2010 at 7:55 am

PS: To clarify what I mean about the smallness of the risk–no one else who ate that batch of pesto had a problem and I’ve never had one before or since (in hundreds of servings of pesto).
It was definitely miserable (and scary) while it lasted, though.

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posted July 20, 2010 at 7:59 am

Chopped pecans make great pesto.

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posted July 20, 2010 at 9:15 am

Are you a “supertaster”. Supertasters have a genetic variant that allows them to experience tastes (bitter, sweet, etc.) more intensely than taste typicals can. Only “supertasters” can perceive the chemical phenylthiocarbamide (PTC).
Check out this website for a demonstration
Maybe “pine mouth sufferers are all supertasters.

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Rod Dreher

posted July 20, 2010 at 9:50 am

You know, I think I am. My wife has long remarked on how I can taste things that she can’t (she says this is one reason I love wine so much; it offers so many complex flavors). Our son Matthew is definitely a supertaster, and eats a very bland and narrow diet of his own accord, because most foods are too intense for him. He can’t handle the smell or taste of meat. But he has sensory processing disorder, so all his senses are highly ramped up (imagine how much fun it was for his parents to learn, via his casual disclosure, that he’s been able to hear our whispered conversations from his bedroom for ages). I have a very strong sense of smell, too, and can pick up aromas my wife cannot. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it doesn’t take much to make me gag; if I take the dog out walking and he poops, I have to pick it up quickly before I smell it, or I’ll double over gagging. I can’t help it.

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posted July 20, 2010 at 11:56 am

Rod……I’m not a big pesto eater….but your blog today definitely made me LOL! As I read about you gagging easily it reminded me of my husband who will gag at just the suggestion of something even mildly distasteful…yet he can dip snuff that smells terrible and spit it in or on anything that stands still! YUCK!
I am reminded of when he would change diapers and gag and throw-up! We would ask the kids, “How does your daddy change your diapers?” They would respond with gagging motions and sound effects!
Thanks for the laugh and the memory today! I definitely needed that!

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