I have always enjoyed the sweet nutty flavor of almonds.  Fortunately, I'm not alone in that regard.  Humans have eaten almonds since as early as 1400 B.C.E.  One of the earliest references of almonds is in the Bible where it was a symbol of God's approval.  It was  a fertility charm to the Romans during wedding ceremonies, it was a symbol of true love in Greek mythology, in ancient times people thought that it could keep a man from getting drunk, and it was the food of merchants as they traveled the old silk roads from China to the Mediterranean.   

Slivered Almonds

Sweet Almonds

Since almonds have obviously been eaten for thousands of years why should there be any question as to the safety of eating them?  The thing is, there are two types of almonds.  The bitter almond and the sweet almond.  The bitter almond is the older variation of the two, and it was a small mutation of their genetics that resulted in the sweet almond that we enjoy today.  The thing is, one is safe to ingest and the other is a deadly toxin that has been known since ancient Greece.

Sweet almonds or Amygdalus communis var. dulcis is safe to eat exactly as they are.  They are high in protein and contain almost no starch, making the flour made from them perfect for people that suffer from diabetes.  Its meat is white, and it has a cinnamon colored outer coating.  Unfortunatly, that outer coating can act as an irritant for some people, and unless they are diced or ground up in some way it is very difficult for your digestive system to break them down and absorb their nutrients.   There are many wonderful things nutrition wise about almonds and it would take an entire article all on its own to discuss just how healthy sweet almonds are for you.  The question however isn't about the yummy goodness of sweet almonds, it's about the safety involved of eating bitter almonds.

Bitter Almonds & Hydrogen Cyanide

Bitter almonds are grown primarily in Southern France, Siciliy, and Africa especially along the Barbary Coast Line.  It's a trade staple in these areas, and is used in the making of Almond Oil.  Bitter Almonds or Amygdalus communis var. amara has a crystalline glucose called amygdalin that cannot be found in sweet almonds.  Now there has been a lot of research done on amygdalin and the big problem with it being digested is that the very act of digestion on amygdalin creates a poison known as hydrogen cyanide.  

Now the first time I read this, I started thinking "How on earth can digesting this stuff create Hydrogen Cyanide?"  Well it turns out that amygdalin is a cyanogenic glycoside, or in plain english, it is basically a chemical that when digested releases cyanide. This happens thanks to a chemical reaction in your gut.  Human's have to have a certain amount of healthy bacteria to help properly digest our foods, well the bacteria that we need hydrologizes the amygdalin, releasing hydrogen cyanide or HCN into the body.

Unfortunately, there is a bit of interest at the moment about how amygdalin affects tumors in rats.   The reason I said unfortunately is because studies show that the quantities needed to affect cancer are also lethal doses.  In the United States this particular treatment for cancer is illegal because of this.  Bitter almonds are not the only potential source of amygdalin, this is also the stuff found in peach pits, apple pits, and various other fruits, and it has a naturally bitter taste.



Interestingly enough it's the bitter almonds that we use to make almond oil, or almond spirits.  Now that really took me back a step or two after reading about how bitter almonds can lead to cyanide poisoning, so I started to look a bit more into it.  Well it turns out that bitter almonds are treated to make them edible.  Normally 20 raw bitter almonds has enough amygdalin to kill an adult human, however by crunching up and soaking the almonds in water you can cause the conversion of amygdalin to benzaldehyde to happen quickly.  After that has happened the almonds are cleaned in order to make almond spirits or almond oil.  Now this isn't to say the method is perfect, but it brings the cyanide levels down to a measure that isn't lethal in humans.  

HCN Poisoning Symptoms

When you see cyanide poisoning it looks a lot like someone that is out of shape after they've climbed a mountain. They can't get enough air, they have a red or pinkish face from all the oxidized blood that isn't being used, they feel weak, have muggy thoughts, they can be very tired, and have a shortness of breath.  They can even start having seizures or head straight into a comatose state from the poisoning.  These are all symptoms of cyanide poisoning, and the reason it looks so much like suffication is because it is suffication.  Cyanide prevents the body from being able to use oxygen in the blood.  

Cyanide can build up gradually in a persons system just like lead or you can get hit with it all at once if it is ingested, and how the symptoms appear is a reflection of how it entered into your system in the first place.  If you get cyanide poisoning from eating bitter almonds then the symptoms will hit you that same night.  However, if it's through prolonged exposure then the symptoms will creep up on you while doing damage over time.  

Please if you suspect someone is suffering from this type of poisoning get help immediately.  You don't want to wait, because every minute is valuable.

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