UPDATED: Beware of pine nuts from China

UPDATE 6/6/10: I believe I’ve found the remedy. Read at the bottom of the post.

On Monday night I made a pretty tasty salad of mixed greens, chives and mustard greens from our garden, 15-year-old balsamic vinegar, shaved parmesan and pine nuts.

The pine nuts, I would learn, were a bad idea.

Jessie didn’t suffer any side-effects, but on Thursday morning I noticed that everything I tried to eat tasted incredibly bitter. I could barely stand the taste of anything long enough to swallow it, and have been hungry for two days because I can’t stand to eat more than a few bites of anything other than granola with a splash of milk.

I did some research yesterday evening and came across a plethora of blog posts, comments on those posts, and even a scientific article about the phenomenon. They all shared the exact same problem: An extremely bitter taste on the back left corner of the tongue. An, lo and behold, we all shared another common trait: We had all eaten pine nuts in recent days. And not just any pine nuts — pine nuts imported from China.

Read a description of the problem in a medical journal article from 2001 here.

My culprit was Melissa’s pine nuts, which are imported from China. Is it a different, new species of pine tree? Is it a pesticide? Is it a food hygiene problem? No one seems certain, but every case I read about included pine nuts from China or one of its immediate neighbors.

There are no lasting effects, though the sourness can last a few days or a few weeks — which makes me nervous, since in less than two weeks we’ll be in Aspen for the Food and Wine Classic. I’ll sort of need my tastebuds for that.

I can’t describe how awful it is to be unable to enjoy taste or flavor, especially when you’re a dedicated foodie. Every food tastes like it’s gone sour and spoiled. At lunch on Thursday, during which I choked down some mac and cheese, I put some wonderful beef short-ribs from Amish country in the crockpot with a bottle of wine, quartered potatoes, carrots and garlic. The smell was intoxicating, but when we sat down to eat it that evening, I barely ate a mouthful. The carrots tasted rotten, the garlic oddly sweet, and the beef like it had been boiled in vinegar.

I found no definitive remedies online, so if you ever suffer from this problem, here’s what I’ve found helps, if only temporarily:

  • Crystallized ginger gives me relief for 15-20 minutes, enough to get through most foods, though anything sweet will immediately counteract this and go right back to bitter.
  • Soda washes out the bitter flavor until you eat something again.
  • I got quite a bit of relief, again until I ate something again, after gargling and swishing around warm saltwater and spitting it out.

Things that taste the worst with “pine-mouth”:

  • Strawberries
  • French fries. I was running around for work today and (I know, shame on me) grabbed fast food from a drive-through. I was close to vomiting after a handful of fries.
  • Carrots, especially if slow-cooked in red wine
  • Actually just about everything.

Has pine-mouth happened to you? What remedy or remedies did you find?

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and spend a few extra dollars for high-quality Italian or American pine nuts, buy them in small batches, and keep them cold in the refrigerator. Unfortunately the brand I bought said only “store in a cool, dry place,” and were not expired.

UPDATE: OK, so I think I’ve found a remedy, and if not, then a way to significantly speed up my recovery. After trying it Friday night and yesterday morning, Jessie and I went out for a day of exploring and I successfully ate lunch with no bitter taste in my mouth. Same with dinner last night, and breakfast this morning. While most people have said it takes them up to 2 weeks for the taste to completely go away, mine is almost entirely gone after just three days.

So here’s what to do: Freshly squeeze three ripe lemons into a glass. One tablespoon at a time, hold some lemon juice in your mouth and then swallow. Yes, it’s sour and a little painful if you’re not used to sour things, but the sourness forces your mouth to salivate, which flushes out impurities. Repeat this every 8 hours or so for a total of three times, or more if the bitter taste is not gone.

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About the Author

Owner of a graphic design firm specializing in magazine design and wannabe chef. Former resident of Belgium, the United Kingdom and...North Dakota.