Pine nuts are edible kernels extracted from the seed of a variety of species of pine tree. The seeds are typically thick-shelled and grow inside of pine cones that look very similar to the pine cones that grow on more common pines grown for timber. Cone harvesting and extraction and preparation of the kernels are time-consuming and costly – contributing to the high prices at which pine nuts sell. Pine nuts are highly nutritious and keep well for many months if stored properly in dry, cool conditions and out of direct sunlight. They are extremely versatile in cooking due to their mild flavor, creamy and subtle when raw and richer and nuttier when lightly toasted. They add interest, flavour and texture to many sweet and savoury dishes. They are a truly natural product – essentially unchanged over centuries – requiring no insecticides or fungicides to either grow the trees or prepare the kernels for market.
By some counts there are as many as eighteen different pine species that have been or are now customarily used as food for humans. These grow across North America, Europe and Asia. Pine nuts have been an important food source for thousands of years. Roman soldiers took them as campaign food when they raided Britain over 2000 years ago. Even before that, Greek authors mentioned pine nut trees as food producers around 300 BC, and it is thought that earlier societies used them and transplanted them throughout the Mediterranean region to Israel and even Georgia and the Black Sea between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. A smaller group of the larger, tastier and easier-to-collect species has survived the transition from hunter-gatherer and local farmer societies to the modern world of global trade. The most significant of these are:
- Chinese pine nuts (Pinus koraiensis). These form the bulk of world supply and are almost always the pine nut you will find if you buy from a supermarket bulk-bin in New Zealand, Australia and many other parts of the world. They have a shorter triangular or teardrop shape and are actually sourced over a wide area including north-east China, south-east Russia, the Korean peninsular and Japan.
- European stone pine nuts (Pinus pinea). The pine nut of Mediterranean cooking from Spain, Italy, southern France, Greece, the middle east, Turkey and north Africa. They are preferred in Europe over Chinese nuts and sell for a significant premium. They are occasionally available in other regions but usually in very small packets at very high prices. European stone pine nuts are longer and more torpedo-shaped than the Chinese nuts.
- Siberian pine nuts (Pinus sibirica). A widespread species found through south-central Siberia and into the Russian far-east. They are rather small and rounded nuts but revered among Siberians as a food of high status and health benefits. They probably find their way at the margins into the large Chinese nut supply and sometimes end up in western supermarkets as a result.
- Himalayan or Chilgoza pine nuts (Pinus gerardiana). Chilgoza pine nuts are a little longer and more slender than any other species. They are harvested from forests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India and are used locally and sometimes available in markets in Europe and elsewhere in Asia.
- Pinon or pinyon pine nuts (Pinus edulis, Pinus monophylla and several other pinon pines of more restricted range). A historically important food for native American tribes of the southwest (Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and northern Mexico) and now highly sought after by residents throughout the region. They are medium sized nuts requiring good harvesting technique to manage the sticky pine pitch on the cones, and often sold in the shell which is thinner and easier to crack than many other species.
- Mexico has the world’s largest array of pine species and some of these have limited natural range but produce edible nuts that can be locally important. One of these species produces a pink pine nut. Another produces the world’s largest pine nuts (Pinus maximartinezii) but it is a very rare tree and fully protected.
- California has three species (Pinus coulteri, Pinus sabiniana and Pinus torreyana) that produce notable edible pine nuts used historically by native Americans, but they are not significant in modern commerce because of the scattered occurrence of trees and high harvesting costs.
- The Swiss nut pine (Pinus cembra) is found through the mountains of central Europe. It has beautiful purple cones with bright tan coloured nuts. In addition to eating the nuts, Italians use the nut shells to flavor and color local grappa.
- St David’s pine (Pinus armandii) is a highly regarded species in South West china. It produces a small and round-shaped nut.
European stone pine nuts take a full three years to mature on the tree, the longest maturation period of any pine species. As winter begins in late May or early June, a few cells in the buds at the very tips of the crown differentiate as cone-producing cells. In the following spring as the buds begin to swell, the growing conelet first becomes visible, looking like a tiny pineapple the size of a large pea. The trees also produce pollen from separate pollen “flowers” during spring of this first season and the conelets open up to trap the pollen so that the embryos tucked inside can be fertilized. If the timing of the opening of the conelet misses this pollen season, the conelet just withers and dies. Those that open at the right time and get fertilized grow and expand to the size of a large marble by the on-set of the following winter. During the next spring and summer seasons, the cones fill out to the full size of an orange and turn from purple-nut brown to bright lime green by the onset of their second winter. In the last year, they further expand to the size of a grapefruit and turn to a rich nut-brown colour as the third winter sets in. That’s when they are ready to harvest - during the late winter or spring of their third year - and before summer conditions dry out the cones enough for them to shed their seed. They produce new cones every year but about every third year is a particularly heavy cone season, known as a mast year.
Pine nuts are wonderfully healthy and nutritious food. They are rich in the kind of healthy fats now considered to be important in a healthy diet. Fatty acids found in pine nuts include linoleic acid and pinolenic acid which both are the subject of research into their role in regulating blood pressure, suppressing appetite for those trying to control their weight and preventing and treating stomach ulcers. More surprising to some is that pine nuts are very rich in protein. Some studies have found at least trace amounts of every one of the 28 amino acids needed for human metabolism. The European stone pine nut has the highest protein content of all the nut pines at 34% by weight. As a result of the high protein content they have a lower oil content than other pine nuts (48% as against 65% for Chinese sourced nuts). They also contain antioxidants (including vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K as well as lutein) which are claimed to prevent disease and aging by eliminating free radicals. Pine nuts have almost no sodium, and contain useful amounts of other minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous and iron. And finally, they contain moderate amounts of dietary fibre.
A small proportion of people have found they have allergic reactions to pine nuts. As far as we can tell from our research, pine nut allergies are significantly less common than allergies to other tree nuts or peanuts, but it is a little hard to be sure because more people have yet to try eating pine nuts than say peanuts, almonds or hazelnuts. It may also be possible that people could show allergic reaction to one pine nut species but not to another species. For anybody who has any reason to believe they might suffer from nut allergies, we highly recommend caution at first when eating pine nuts. One thing we are very sure about is that our company and our factory only produce pine nuts. We can say with confidence that the machinery used to harvest and process Pinoli premium pine nuts has not been used to process other types of tree or ground nuts.
Researchers from the Food Group, Department of Wine, Food and Molecular Biosciences, Lincoln University have just completed a research project comparing the nutritional mineral content of Pinoli Premium Pine Nuts with other pine nuts from New Zealand and other countries. See their research poster here. The full research paper is available online http://www.mdpi.com/2304-8158/2/2/143. Mineral content of our pine nuts is significantly better than for imported nuts bought from the local supermarket. Dr Savage and Mr Vanhanen are following this up with a fatty acid analysis that should also be very interesting.
The Curious Saga of Pine Mouth
A very odd reaction to eating pine nuts has been reported by a very few people from several countries. The prevalent symptom described was the development of a strong bitter or metallic taste sensation some hours or days after consuming pine nuts. Technically, this is called “dysgeusia”. In some people it lasted for as long as two weeks and in the worst cases sufferers reported symptoms so strong that they were unable to consume any food for a day or two. Obviously this was of great concern to us, but we are pleased to report that studies carried out by scientists at the Nestle Research Centre and the Belgian Poison Control Centre have identified one species of pine nut, Armand or St David’s pine (P. armandii) from South West China as the culprit. See the full article here. (link is http://www.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2011/316789/)
While undoubtedly distressing to those who have suffered from “pine mouth”, the story has many interesting aspects from commercial, physiological and medical perspectives. Every two or three years, the pine nut harvest in China is reduced to very low levels just due to natural cycles of production in the main species, Korean pine. World demand for pine nuts continues to rise and in years of poor supply, prices rise sharply, providing an incentive for people living in the South West of China to forage for Armand pine nuts that would not be economically worth collecting in a more normal year. With ever-globalizing trade, these Armand pine nuts have gotten mixed into the export supply chain over the last decade or so, thus explaining the sudden appearance in many countries of a syndrome barely known before 2001.
To their credit, the Chinese authorities immediately issued new rules prohibiting the collection and inclusion of Armand pine nuts into supply intended for commercial sale. Enforcement of these regulations though seems to have been inconsistent, leaving a continued risk of contamination of Chinese supply by Armand pine nuts. The 2012 year was a very poor harvest in the Korean pine regions of North East China and we may see further cases of pine mouth as a result in the next year or so.
Pine mouth is a very odd syndrome. It appears that the taste sensation in the mouth is triggered by absorption of a naturally occurring chemical in Armand pine – when it enters the lower digestive system, and not before. Sufferers report enjoying their pine nuts – and only hours or days later suffering the taste problems. This is so unusual that it has researchers studying it further to try to understand neural pathways that connect the digestive system to the brain and our system of taste in the mouth. They hope to learn more about how our whole food metabolism works in the process.
It may be small consolation to those who have suffered pine mouth, but the other helpful conclusion from research is that while most unpleasant, pine mouth apparently has no other effect on human health. In the worst cases, some people have lost some weight due to not being able to eat other food for a while, but there are no known toxic or other debilitating effects of the syndrome and all sufferers recover completely after some period of time lasting from hours to a few weeks at the outside.
As far as we can tell, there is zero risk of developing “pine mouth” from eating Pinoli Premium Pine Nuts. All of our product is pure European Stone pine (P. pinea). We are experimenting with other interesting species for the future but will be sure we never produce and sell any Armand pine!