Imagine if, suddenly, you were struck blind. Or, seemingly out of nowhere, while sitting at home, you lost your hearing. Or the sensation in your fingers. Alas, what might be the worst calamity to befall us food lovers, is this: what if all food tasted bad?
This is not some fantastical Grimm’s fairy tale. It happened to my brother. And it can happen to you.
It was just another day like any other day in bucolic Berkeley, California, where, year-round, the weather is perfect for tennis, and there’s always a free-trade coffee bean roasting nearby. My brother, Richard, was eating a sandwich — no doubt, in between sips of Kombucha tea — when, bang, he realized it tasted just awful. It had this bitter taste to it that he had not experienced before. That night, same thing; dinner had the bitter taste. Everyone else thought the food was fine. The next morning’s breakfast? Same thing again. He knew something was wrong.
It’s like entering a culinary Twilight Zone, and Richard was grasping for answers. Luckily, he could just Google it. He punched in “everything tastes bitter.” But nothing relevant showed up. But as he looked more closely, he started noticing mentions of pine nuts, and a light went on: he had eaten pine nuts in a pesto he had made about two days before his first symptoms.
This was back in 2010. Today, if you look it up on the Internet, you’ll quickly find a lot of entries about something called pine mouth. But, back then, Richard was facing a lifetime of bitterness, with just a few strands of hope, suggesting that his symptoms could disappear as quickly as they appeared, within a few days.
It just so happens that soon after Richard’s taste buds were seemingly struck by the hand of God, the FDA had heard enough similar complaints to look into the “pine mouth” phenomenon, which apparently was first identified in 2001. But it’s had an uptick since 2010.
The FDA found that it often begins 12 to 48 hours after consumption of pine nuts, and can last a few days or even two weeks. “The symptoms decrease over time with no apparent adverse clinical side effects,” the FDA states.
Usually, the condition occurs after pine nuts are eaten in the raw state— as in pesto. There were no signs of the pine nuts being off in any way. The FDA also notes that this reaction is not a food allergy. (For more information, check out the FDA statement)
What I gather from elsewhere is that there is suspicion that the condition may be rooted in pine nuts that come from China, where a particular chemical is used during the shelling process. I don’t know if this is enough of a reason to stop buying the cheaper pine nuts that come from there; you can also get Italian pine nuts, which I hear are better tasting but far more expensive.
I don’t want to cause a pine nut panic. Lord knows, we are knee-deep in the middle of pesto season, and no one wants to be told to get out of the water (cue Roy Scheider running down the beach).
It appears the odds that this condition will strike you are low, but it’s out there. In Berkeley, where pine nuts are a favorite food item, thrown into salads and on pizzas, my brother has come across other people who have been struck with pine mouth, including a close neighbor.
In my brother’s case, his taste buds went back to normal within a couple of days. We laugh about it now, but he doesn’t eat pine nuts any more.
He recalls how, in his darkest, most bitter hour, he went to desperate measures, and, after losing weight from not eating and contemplating a life without taste, he ate a bowl of jalapenos just to feel some different sensation than that nastiness in his mouth.
Oh, the horror.
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