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How a Global Shortage of Pine Nuts Is Literally Leaving a Bad Taste in Consumers' Mouths

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Many are reporting a lasting taste disturbance after consuming pine nuts that were likely exported from China before fully maturing.

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It started with pesto. It ended with "pine nut syndrome."

The taste can be described as sort of metallic. Bitter. Medicinal. It forms in the back of the mouth a day or so after consuming pine nuts, and gets stronger when eating something. In fact, it completely overpowers whatever you're eating. It is, in a word, gross.

The good news? "Pine Nut Mouth" seems to only affect a small percentage of people and there's no evidence of lasting medical problems. The bad news? Effects can last up to four weeks, and so far, science and industry have no real explanation.

Over the past year or so, sufferers of this taste disturbance have flocked to Internet boards for answers and, as I discovered, the comfort of knowing you're not alone. When I first noticed the odd taste, I did what any normal person might do. I drank a ton of water, ate some pretzels, had some gum, brushed my teeth, flossed, mouth washed, and then proceeded to repeat this process numerous time. When the taste only got worse, I knew something was wrong.

That's when I took to the Internet. It didn't take long to realize I was far from alone.

"I made a pine nut and pesto pasta with fresh Mozzerella [sic] and enjoyed it thouroughly [sic] until it hit! The nasty taste in the back of my throat like I had an aspirin sitting on my tongue! I love to eat so only being able to drink water without suffering is very annoying. Today is my 3rd day with 'pine mouth' and the headache has started," writes one commentator on the popular food website Epicurious.com.
"I'm experiencing this right now... it sucks. Obviously there are a bunch of other people going through the same thing based on these comments. I'm blown away that Trader Joe's (KR) (where I got mine from) or Whole Foods (WFMI) would still sell these, since this strange phenomenon apparently started last winter," writes another.

And more succinctly: "I got the 'pine mouth'!!! This is horrible!"

Reports of the "pine mouth" are relatively new, popping up on Internet boards over the past year. But one of the first mentions of the taste disturbance appeared in an article in The European Journal of Emergency Medicine in March 2001. The findings weren't exactly reassuring.

"Examination of the pine nuts [that caused taste disturbance] revealed they were oxidized and not fit for consumption. No fungal contamination was found. No explanation was found for the taste disturbances."

So why the sudden surge in "pine mouth?" For starters, a lot more people are eating the nuts.

David Rosenthal, from Red River Foods, told the food blog Epicurean.com, "seven years ago, nobody knew what a pine nut was…Today, you can go to TGI Fridays and see pine nut pesto sauce." In January, Trendspooning, the New York Times' food blog, pointed out that pine nuts were popping up in gourmet bakeries all over town.

So chances are, if you consider yourself a gourmand, you've sought out these tasty nuts to make some pesto or throw into a salad. And if you have, you've probably been somewhat shocked at how expensive pine nuts have become.

As fate would have it, the sudden boom in pine nut demand has coincided with a global pine nut shortage. The Chicago Tribune reported on the issue back in September. Poor crops and climate change are to blame.

"The price of pine nuts doubled between 2003 and 2005," Penny Frazier, owner of Pinenut.com, a pine nut purveyor, tells Minyanville. "And then they doubled again over the last 18 months. That creates a tremendous pressure on the harvesters."

And that's where things can get dangerous.

"The rising demand for the product has forced the pickers into the forest prior to the pinecone maturing. When you have an immature seed, there can be rancidity issues. And if the foods from immature products mix with mature product, it would be really difficult to track it back to any particular harvester," Frazier says.

Which brings us back to The European Journal of Emergency Medicine.

The study found that "in the following months [after the initial study], six similar cases were reported to the Poisons Centre. The pine nuts involved in those cases were imported from China."

As it would happen, China experienced a severe crop shortage of pine nuts last year. David Braverman, co-owner of Nutsonline.com, told The Chicago Tribune that China "lost a significant amount of the crop. And in addition, the demand in China was higher than it has ever been. So they cut their exports. A poor crop coupled with the high demand, and there was very little to go around."

Care to guess who's the number one exporter of pine nuts to the US?

Hint: It's not Italy.

According to the University of Missouri's Center of Agroforestry, the pine nut has a $100 million US market, with more than 80% of US pine nuts being imported, primarily from China.

A lot of those Chinese pine nuts ended up in stores like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Costco (COST), and Sam's Club (WMT), all of which have been blamed anecdotally by customers on the Internet. None of these companies issued a formal recall of pine nuts, but since the problem began they seem to be looking elsewhere for their supply.

Currently, the label on Trader Joe's pine nuts says they're from "Russia, Korea, or Vietnam."

But not everyone is confident that it will make much of a difference.

Michael Park, on Epicurious, writes, "It's worth noting that the Russian-Chinese border can be extremely porous, and much of the Russian-grown pine nuts are processed by the Chinese anyway."

"People who work with pine nuts on a global level don't want to attribute their sources to China. Primarily because of the pine nut mouth," says Frazier.

Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Costco, and Sam's Club were contacted for comment, but did not return our calls.

The FDA tells Minyanville: "There have been about 100 complaints from 2/22/2009 to the present. There were two with reports of GI illness and the rest were reported as taste disturbances, which we would not consider an illness. A complaint guidance was issued to our FDA field offices last September. It basically says that whenever possible, samples are to be collected and sent to a FDA laboratory for research. We are hoping the information obtained from consumers and the analytical results will help to determine what causes the problem and if additional action is necessary."

Meanwhile, The International Nut and Dried Fruit Foundation is currently researching the problem. As is Grace Kim, a graduate student at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who urges people to check out her website.

In the meantime, what's a pine nut sufferer to do? Pretty much just wait it out. And next time you make pesto, try using walnuts.

As for my "pine nut mouth?" It's getting better.


No positions in stocks mentioned.

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