Robin Abcarian
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Ever heard of 'pine nut syndrome'? Neither had I, until I got it

Medical ResearchFood and Drug AdministrationTelegraphMaytag Corp.
I apologize, Father's Office. Your food and wine was fine. My taste buds were not
A few pine nuts in a salad can cause a bizarre, little understood taste problem

To the bartender at Father’s Office in Culver City, who graciously replaced my California chardonnay with an Italian white on Monday night because the chardonnay tasted rancid: I apologize.

Weirdly, the replacement white was funky, too. I was too embarrassed to complain again. But when my Father’s Office burger arrived, topped with the restaurant’s signature onion-bacon compote, arugula and melted mix of gruyere and Maytag blue, I was befuddled.

This was just not possible.

A Father’s Office burger is the standard by which all other gourmet hamburgers are judged. This burger is so good that The Times Test Kitchen once spent days developing a replica recipe, because chef Sang Yoon refused to divulge it. And yet, I could barely choke down half.

As it turned out, Father’s Office, it wasn’t you. It was me.

Tuesday morning, after drinking a cup of coffee that tasted even worse than the “bad” chardonnay from the night before, I became alarmed. So I did what anyone with a medical problem and a modem would do. I hopped on Google and typed, “I have a bad taste in my mouth.”

Wow.

You can’t believe how many people have bad tastes in their mouths, and how many possible causes exist for the malady, which is called “dysgeusia.” I clicked on a Telegraph story that looked promising. A big photo of pine nuts popped up on my screen. Huh?

“During the past few years,” the story reported, “there have been reports of people suffering from a constant bitter or metallic taste as a result of eating pine nuts.” The condition, it said, is “pine nut syndrome.”

The adverse reaction can develop suddenly and inexplicably within 12 to 48 hours after consuming the nuts, which are the edible seeds of the pine tree. It can happen out of the blue, even to people who have eaten pine nuts previously with no adverse reaction. It does not seem to matter whether the pine nuts are raw or roasted. It does not seem to matter whether three nuts are consumed, or a handful. It does not seem to matter where the nuts come from. The syndrome does not involve mold or bacteria. It is not an allergy.

It is a mystery.

Jill Bernheimer, 43, who owns the Domaine LA wine shop on Melrose Avenue near Hancock Park was stricken out of the blue about five years ago after making one of her frequent batches of pesto. She had a bitter, metallic taste in her mouth, deeply alarming to someone who lives by her palate. Like me, she hopped online and soon diagnosed her problem.

“There was momentary panic when you don’t know what’s going on or why,” she told me today, “but as soon as I realized that with a bit of time everything would be fine, I didn’t have any issues.” Within a month, she said, her palate was completely back to normal. These days, she avoids pine nuts like the plague, and makes her pesto with walnuts.

I have loved pine nuts since I was in graduate school, when I discovered the Sicilian-style cookies called pignoli at a Greenwich Village bakery called Rocco's. Lately, I’ve been making a butter lettuce salad with pink grapefruit, avocado, Roquefort crumbles…and pine nuts. I served it Sunday night, and 24 hours later, was reeling from the bad taste in my mouth.

The Food and Drug Administration is aware of the problem. On March 14, 2011, the agency posted a page on “'Pine Mouth’ and the Consumption of Pine Nuts.”

Pine mouth, the FDA reported, “lasts on average between a few days and two weeks.”

I guess that’s the good news. The bad news: “It is exacerbated by consumption of any other food during this period and significantly decreases appetite and enjoyment of food. [Horrified italics are all mine.] The symptoms decrease over time with no apparent adverse clinical side effects.”

The agency urges sufferers – and I use the term loosely as I would hardly call this true suffering – to report incidents of pine mouth. I called an FDA consumer complaint specialist, who took my information for his database. He wanted to know where I had purchased them. (Trader Joe's, of course.)

He was very kind and told me not to be distressed, as my symptoms were probably peaking today, and would soon begin to subside. He’d experienced the syndrome after eating hummus a couple of years ago, and was back to normal within two weeks. "Refrain from ingesting sugar," he warned. "Sugar enhances the bitterness."

The FDA, he told me, had first taken note of the problem three years ago, when the agency  began receiving daily complaints about pine mouth. Reports are now at a relative trickle but not rare. Nobody knows why it happens, he said, “but it’s not dangerous.”

Wired senior writer Greg Miller investigated after experiencing pine nut syndrome a couple years ago. He found nothing conclusive, but he noted that scientists have pointed a finger at China, and the Chinese species of white pine called Pinus armandii.

“A poor pine nut harvest in 2010 resulted in Chinese imports accounting for up to 80 percent of pine nuts sold in the U.S. that year, coinciding with an uptick in reports of pine mouth,” he wrote.

I called a Trader Joe’s spokeswoman, who was sympathetic, but – characteristically for the chain -- not forthcoming. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a comment for your story,” Alison Mochizuki told me.

TJ’s pine nuts, according to the packaging, come from Korea, Russia and Vietnam. The packaging also comes with something I had never noticed before -- a warning.

“Some individuals may experience a reaction to eating pine nuts, characterized by a lingering bitter or metallic taste,” it says.

Maybe there's a silver lining here. But it's a hell of a way to start a diet.

Twitter: @robinabcarian

 

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