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The Difference Between Bitter Almonds, Sweet Almonds, and Stone Fruit Seeds

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.

 

IMG_2031

 

In short:

  • 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. 

 

 

 

Comments

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Joe

Great post Camper. Thanks for sharing this info!

Camper English

Thanks - It's taken me forever to get it straight.

Blair Frodelius

I want tasting notes on each.

As an aside, much of the bitterness from each of these comes from the skin and not the "meat" of the seed/pit/fruit. If you've ever had almond milk (which I've made at home), you know what I mean.

Nora

What is the best way to remove the kernal from the pit?

Camper English

Sorry I haven't done it myself so I'm no expert on almond shucking.

William

Oh, I didn't know bitter almonds contain cyanide because I could see some supplement containing this. Thanks for this wonderful info Camper English!

Camper English

You're most welcome. It's a confusing subject!

Kerri

We are thrilled to identify a mystery volunteer pair of trees in our yard in northeastern NC as almonds! This is the first year I've seen fruit, but the trees bloomed pink blossoms at the same time as our peach trees last year and this year. Is there any remote chance that these trees are bitter almond instead of sweet? I assume they were planted accidentally by birds. Would there be bitter almonds around here?

Camper English

Hi Kerri - I do know some people out here in California who have bitter almond trees, so we can say they're in the States anyway. I don't know enough about plant identification to tell you how to tell them apart.

Me o w s t e r

Sweet ones contain cyanide as well, but 50 times less compared to bitter ones...

Camper English

Thanks!

Peter in Texas

Thank you for your cogent explanation!

Camper English

You are very welcome!

John

Hi every there thanks for good information . I heard that
Growing almond from sweet seed still give bitter seed . Is that true?

Chaya

Wait. The picture shows sweet almonds, wild peach seeds, and apricot seeds. Where are the bitter almond seeds to compare with the sweet almonds?

Camper English

I couldn't find any to buy.

Camper English

I do not know.

Kalle

Reading elsewhere it seems that the bitter almond is a specific variety of the almond tree, the kernels are said to be slightly smaller and pointier. The bitter almond tree is said to be used as an ornamental tree. The lethal dose of bitter almonds varies by source between 7 and 50 raw seeds eaten at a sitting (cyanide is a fast metabolized poison and you can have a sub lethal dose every day without lasting effects).


The taste of bitter almond is the same as the seeds of the other stone fruit and is so bitter it is difficult to eat even a small nibble as our taste buds warn us and prevent a lethal dose by accident.


Almond trees need a friend as they are not usually able to self pollinate, my mom had to plant three before she got any crop, tasting the seed lets you check if it is a bitter variety. Some sweet almonds have a very soft shell and are called 'paper shell' varieties that can be shelled by hand.


The extracted bitter almond oil (aroma) as sold has no cyanide components as this is a water soluble salt that is not carried over and is denatured by heat processing.


My mom would shell and add 2 or 3 apricot kernels to each big pot of apricot jam for added flavour (it works) and after cooking the kernels tasted like regular almonds.


Many brands of marzipan are made from debittered apricot or bitter almond kernels as they are cheaper (one is a byproduct of the jam industry and the other is not sold retail) and some use peanuts/groundnuts instead, with added almond flavour.

Camper English

Thanks Kalle - This confirms some stuff I learned at Disaronno
https://www.alcademics.com/2014/07/disaronno-distillery-visit-in-saronno-italy.html

and includes a lot of new info I didn't know. I appreciate you sharing it!

Camper

Dennis Jacobsen

The revered scriptures record “the almond tree shall flourish” also indicating the time for another generation, as planting almond trees was best thought of as being for a coming generation.

Don

Blair is very incorrect. The bitter, cyanide- and benzaldehyde-yielding compound amygdalin (aka laetrile) is spread throughout the body of the nut. This is why, when a bitter almond slips into a batch of marcona almonds imported from Europe, even skinless ones (as all marconas are) induce the vaguely terrifying effect of those compounds being released by hydrolysis in the mouth. The reason they crop up in batches of almonds from Europe and not from the US is due to the xenia effect and is explained in this extensive thread at chowhound: https://www.chowhound.com/post/marcona-almonds-inedible-433332

I myself first encountered a bitter almond in a batch of regular sweet almonds, not marconas and with skin on, that I'd bought in Paris decades ago. I have also experienced them in marconas from Trader Joes, as have others on that thread, but never the ones I buy now at Wegmans.

I have noticed that peach and apricot pits are legal for sale in US health food stores. However I was disappointed when I bought a bag and I know why. It sure seems like they release less of those volatile compounds, but clearly have some present. The effect of chewing them is not as exhilarating as hitting a true bitter almond in a batch of sweet ones. Though maybe something about the way marconas are blanched and fried in oil makes the release of gasses more 'explosive' somehow.

Camper English

Thanks for the info and for the link to that thread!

Sandra

You can't get them here in the U.S.

omole

please in terms of appearance, one appeared red while the other one is white ( I mean their mesocarps). how can l differentiate between. Thanks

richard

pls which of the almond is good for the health. does the sweet almond treat cancer or lumb without chemotherapy

richard

which of the almond is good for the.health.and which of the almond treat cancer

Camper English

@Richard - Almond pits do not treat cancer, this has been disproven and the pits are poisonous.

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