All almonds fall into two categories - bitter almonds and sweet almonds. While sweet almonds are perfectly safe to consume raw, bitter almonds, on the other hand, are toxic and must be processed before they are safe. Before you read this quick introduction to bitter almonds, you may want to take a look at our piece on Everything You Need To Know About Almonds.
What Do Bitter Almonds Look Like?
Bitter almonds look very similar to sweet almonds. They have light brown skin and a white interior, and at first glance, you could mistake them for regular almonds. The two main differences between the appearance of sweet almonds and bitter almonds are that bitter almonds tend to be smaller, and they also tend to be slightly pointier.
If you’re now panicking about eating bitter almonds by accident, don’t fear - bitter almonds, as their name suggests, taste pretty dreadful raw, and so you’d struggle to consume more than one before realizing something wasn’t quite right. If you think that you’ve eaten raw bitter almonds by mistake, contact a health professional immediately.
Why Are Raw Bitter Almonds Toxic?
Raw bitter almonds contain very high levels of a compound known as hydrocyanic acid - an organic version of the poison cyanide. Even just a handful of raw bitter almonds contains enough hydrocyanic acid to be fatal, which is why raw bitter almonds are prohibited in certain countries, including the United States. Before sale, most bitter almonds are pre-processed to remove their hydrogenic acid and make them safe to eat, but you should always check the package before consuming them just in case.
How Are Bitter Almonds Used?
Despite their toxicity, bitter almonds are still grown and processed in vast quantities because they have a much stronger flavor and more pungent aroma than sweet almonds. After heating, they are often processed to release their essential oils, which can then be used to flavor almond liqueurs and create almond extracts.
Some popular dishes that feature bitter almonds include marzipan and stollen. In addition to their culinary uses, bitter almonds are also processed and used in cosmetic products, hand soaps, and even candles!
Can You Snack On Processed Bitter Almonds?
While cooked and processed bitter almonds may be safe to eat, they still tend to taste pretty bitter. If you’re planning on snacking on almonds, then sweet almonds are a much more palatable option. If you’re trying to make your almond syrup or almond oil, on the other hand, then bitter almonds will produce a more robust flavor.