The first case was reported in Belgium in 2000, and since has spread throughout Europe and the United States. People reported a strange ‘flavor disturbance’ that lasted for weeks and made everything they ate taste metallic, similar to sucking on pennies. Others said foods suddenly tasted bitter, soapy or sour. Those afflicted suffered no other symptoms, and after two-to-four weeks the malady disappeared as mysteriously as it had come.
Pine nuts, the edible seeds of pine trees have been a part of human diets dating back to the Paleolithic Age. Though only about twenty varieties are
substantial enough for harvesting, most pines produce edible seeds. Packed with nutrients, they’re an essential ingredient in a variety of recipes around the world. In Italy they’re pounded into pestos, in France they add flavor to marzipan balls, in the Middle East they’re incorporated into a variety of dishes, from kibbeh to baklava.
However, despite their popularity in so many cuisines, pine nuts are also at the bottom of the puzzling loss of taste plaguing diners worldwide. The common denominator seems to have been the fact that twenty-four to seventy-two hours before experiencing flavor disturbance, individuals had all eaten pine nuts. Not long after the first reported incident, researchers began referring to the malaise as “Pine Mouth” or “Pine Nut Syndrome” (PNS).
To this day, scientists are still not sure exactly why some people experience PNS. Not everyone does, even if they eat from the same bowl as someone who ends up with Pine Mouth. At first, it was suspected that pine nuts from China were behind the problem since primarily Westerners were losing their ability to taste. Researchers concluded that it was lack of exposure causing a reaction.
However, there wasn’t much evidence to support that claim, and so the search for a method to the pine nut madness continues. Newer studies suggest a possible genetic link between those who get Pine Mouth, but more time is needed before the hypothesis is accepted. In the meantime, consumers are warned on some packaging to enjoy pine nuts at their own risk. While delicious, they could come at a high cost!