Chinese Vs. Italian Pine Nuts: What you need to know

I always have a bag of pine nuts on hand when making a salad, and it’s hard to resist eating handfuls of them straight out of the bag. I used to eat lots of Chinese pine nuts, but now I’ve switched to only eating Mediterranean or Italian ones. Here’s why.

Most pine nuts available commercially are from China. Chinese pine nuts, whether cooked or raw, may give you a condition called “Pine Mouth”. The only way to avoid this is to eat ‘true’ Italian or Mediterranean pine nuts instead.

What is “Pine Mouth”?

“Pine Mouth” is a condition that occurs a few days after eating a specific type of Chinese pine nut. This is suspected to be the Pinus armandii species from the Chinese white pine. It is not known if the condition is caused by the pine nut itself or the chemicals used in the extraction process.

Within about 48 hours of eating these pine nuts, you get a long-lasting foul bitter taste in your mouth for several days or weeks. It affects everything you eat and drink.

In 2013, the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology published findings of their tests on pine nuts following complaints in the USA about ‘Pine Mouth Syndrome’. They found “no clear evidence of an underlying medical cause or common trigger” other than the correlation with the consumption of the ChinesePinus armandii species.

I once experienced “Pine Mouth” after munching on cheap Chinese pine nuts straight out of the bag. For two weeks, everything I ate or drank tasted like vinegar coated pennies. It was awful. For this reason, I only buy Mediterranean pine nuts. They’re more expensive and harder to find, but I don’t want to get ‘Pine Mouth’ ever again!

Are Pine nuts from China safe to eat?

It depends what you mean by “safe”. Chinese pine nuts won’t make you ill just because they’re from China. They are ‘safe’ in that they are edible, they have passed EU and USA food administration standards and taste how you would expect them to. They are, after all, the most widely available pine nut and most people have no problem with them.

However, if you want to completely eliminate the possibility of getting Pine Mouth, then you should seek out Italian or Mediterranean pine nuts. These are usually the Pinus Pinea variety, also known as the ‘Stone Pine’. These are the ‘true’ pine nuts traditionally used in Europe for dishes like pesto, cookies and toasted in salads.

Be aware: Even Chinese pine nuts labelled ‘Organic’, ‘Premium’, ‘Natural’ or ‘Quality’ won’t make a difference to the risk of getting Pine Mouth. If they’re from China, they’re likely to be the Pinus armandii species that causes the condition.

Chinese vs Italian / Mediterranean pine nuts – how to tell

Fortunately, there are several ways of telling the difference between Mediterranean / Italian pine nuts and the Chinese varieties:

The easiest way to tell is by sight. Check the appearance of the pine nuts. Mediterranean pine nuts are smoother and longer. They look like this:

Italian pine nuts
Italian or Mediterranean pine nuts: Pinus Pinea

Chinese and other non-Mediterranean nuts are shorter, almost triangular, have a darker ‘tip’ and look like this:

Chinese pine nuts: Pinus armandii

Always check the label or packaging for the country of origin. If several are listed or it simply states China or Korea, then they’re not the same pine species as the Mediterranean type of pine nut.

Beware of misleading labels saying “packed in the UK” or “packed in the USA” – this still means the pine nuts in the bag could come from any country, they were just bagged and packaged in the UK or the States.

Where can I buy Italian / Mediterranean Pine nuts?

Bear in mind that most supermarkets and shops in the UK and USA only sell the Chinese variety, because they’re easier to source and they’re cheaper.

To get genuine, true Italian or Mediterranean pine nuts you’ll have to do a bit of searching. You should check the pine nuts’ appearance and country of origin very carefully.

The UK suppliers I use for Mediterranean pine nuts are:

Los Quesos Demitio (click to check the price on Amazon) – they’re an organic Spanish company who sell the real thing, vac packed for freshness.

I also like the organic Sicilian pine nuts sold by Pearls of Samarkand, which are of a very high grade (click the check the price on Amazon).

When I was travelling in the USA, I got small bags from Fatina (click to check the price on Amazon) or bulk from Larissa (click to check the price on Amazon).

I also occasionally managed to find ‘true’ pine nuts in local delis specialising in Italian, Greek, Persian or Portuguese food.

If you ever travel to Italy, they’re available in some supermarkets there at a reasonable price. Check with your airline and Customs if it’s OK to bring them back in your luggage.

Other than Pine Mouth, are pine nuts bad for you?

Pine nuts are actually a seed rather than a nut, and they’re pretty good for you as they have lots of nutritional benefits.

They are high in protein, so they keep you fuller for longer. They’re rich in magnesium, which is something people often struggle to get enough of in their diets. They also help the body release an appetite-suppressing hormone called cholecystokinin, which helps to stave off hunger.

Pine nuts are oily and rich in monounsaturated fat, but they are still quite calorific for their size. If you eat a lot of them, it should be part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Good job they’re perfect for salad!

Due to this same high oil content, they can go off surprisingly quickly. A rancid batch of pine nuts isn’t hugely harmful, but it may upset your stomach.

Is it safe to eat raw or uncooked pine nuts?

Yes, it is perfectly safe to eat raw pine nuts, if they’re fresh and not rancid. They don’t need to be toasted or cooked first. You can use them straight out of the bag, but toasting them gives them a nuttier, sweeter flavour and a better crunch.

How do you know if your pine nuts are rancid?

Pine nuts almost always come shelled and are high in oil, so they tend to go rancid quickly if not stored properly.

Freshness is the key to flavour with pine nuts – get them as fresh as possible. Time is the best indicator of whether a batch of pine nuts is likely to be rancid or not.

At room temperature they don’t last more than a couple of weeks. You should buy them from a place with a high turnover so they’re not bad before you even get them home.

Rancid nuts will smell just that – rancid, like old butter. If they don’t smell, try the taste and texture test. Older pine nuts are soft and slightly sour instead of crisp and buttery.

How do you store pine nuts to stop them going off?

If you’ve managed to track down that elusive batch of Mediterranean pine nuts and have spent good money on them, you should keep them fresh for as long as possible.

If you’re going to use them within a month or two, keep them in a sealed container in the fridge. Just like butter, oils or other fats, they’ll be happier there and last longer.

If you’re going to use them within three to six months, then they will last longer in the freezer in an airtight bag or jar. You can toast or cook them straight from frozen – since they’re so small, they defrost very quickly at room temperature.

As a last resort, if you think your pine nuts are about to go bad, then toast them. Spend around five minutes rolling them around a dry, medium-heat frying pan until they look a little ‘wet’ as the oils are released, and then turn golden.

You can keep these toasted nuts in a sealed jar for another week or two. These are perfect in salads or for topping sweet cakes, biscuits or in cookies.

What happens when you eat too many pine nuts?

If you’re lucky enough to be in the position of having eaten too many pine nuts, then you shouldn’t experience any serious ill effects. They’re quite rich, so they may upset your stomach or cause indigestion, but nothing too drastic should occur.

However, returning to the original point made earlier in this article, if they are Chinese pine nuts then overindulging in them may result in “Pine Mouth” as you’re more likely to have eaten the variety that causes it.

Overall, pine nuts are fine to eat, raw or cooked – but beware the variety you’re popping into your mouth or blitzing into your pesto. Chinese pine nuts may be cheap, but are they worth the risk?

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