The difference between almonds, bitter almonds, "bitter almonds," and stone fruit pits/seeds like apricot, peach, and cherry can be very confusing. This post will hopefully help sort that out.
Almond trees come in either sweet or bitter varieties. Sweet almonds are the ones you eat, and considered safe.
Bitter almonds contain cyanide precursors and are not commercially available in the United States. According to Wikipedia, "Bitter almonds may yield from 4–9 mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond and contain 42 times higher amounts of cyanide than the trace levels found in sweet almonds."
The FDA requires that bitter almond oils are “free from prussic acid (cyanide).”
But bitter almond liqueurs like Disaronno and Luxardo Amaretto contain bitter almonds. Well, yes and not really. These liqueurs contain the oil of "bitter almonds," which is how they refer to the seeds of stonefruit.
Disaronno only uses apricot pits in their formulation, while Luxardo uses all three of the stone fruits. The stone fruit seeds are crushed and distilled, leaving behind the dangerous parts. The bitter almond oil is collected and used to flavor the liqueurs.
I bought some almonds, peach seeds, and apricot seeds online. As you can see, the unsafe "bitter almonds" just look like smaller sweet almonds.
- Almonds are sweet almonds.
- Bitter almonds are a type of high-cyanide-containing almonds, but also:
- "Bitter almonds" you see for sale/on ingredient lists are usually the seeds of stone fruit like apricots, cherries, and peaches.
According to the TTB: "Bitter Almond Oil produced from the pits of Bitter Almond, Peach, Apricot or Cherry must be free from Prussic Acid (FFPA) as determined by the AOAC Method 973.19." So no matter which type of bitter almond one chooses, it must be free of cyanide.
Another note: There is some confusion (or at least I had some) about whether those stone fruits that resemble almonds are the pits or the seeds of the fruit. Pits are the containers of the seeds, and the seeds are the things that look like tree almonds. So in the picture, you can see that the sweet almonds refers to the seeds, which are surrounded by the pits.
For practical (rather than botanical) purposes, these seeds can also be called kernels.