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Beware the smell of bitter almonds: Why do many food plants contain cyanide?

In murder mysteries, the detective usually diagnoses cyanide poisoning by the scent of bitter almonds wafting from the corpse. The detective knows what many of us might find surprising that the deadly poison cyanide is naturally present in bitter almonds and many other plants used as food, including apples, peaches, apricots, lima beans, barley, sorghum, flaxseed and bamboo shoots.

Apricot kernels are the seeds found inside the pits (stones) of fresh apricots. There are two types of apricot kernels, bitter and sweet. Bitter apricot kernels naturally contain a compound called amygdalin, which has the potential to release cyanide when ingested by humans. Small amounts of cyanide are detoxified by the human body but high doses can be lethal. Alternatively, sweet apricot kernels and the fruit (flesh) of apricots do not pose a risk of adverse health effects from cyanide exposure because they contain lower levels of amygdalin.

Consumption of almonds has been shown in numerous studies to help lower cholesterol, reduce blood sugar, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Habitual almond consumption does not in and of itself appear to lead to weight gain

Herbal/Plant Therapies:
Bitter almond (Prunus amygdalus Batch var. amara (DC.) Focke) & Laetrile

Background: The almond is closely related to the peach, apricot and cherry (all classified as drupes). Unlike the others, however, the outer layer of the almond is not edible. The edible portion of the almond is the seed. A compound called amygdalin differentiates the bitter almond from the sweet almond. In the presence of water (hydrolysis), amygdalin yields glucose and the chemicals benzaldehyde and hydrocyanic acid (HCN). HCN, the salts of which are known as cyanide, is poisonous. To be used in food or as a flavoring agent, the HCN must be removed from the bitter almond oil. Once it is removed, the oil is called volatile almond oil and is considered to be almost pure benzaldehyde. Volatile almond oil can still be toxic in large amounts.


Uses based on scientific evidence research
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. 


Cancer (Laetrile) research


"Laetrile" is an alternative cancer drug marketed in Mexico and other countries outside of the United States. Laetrile is derived from amygdalin, found in the pits of fruits and nuts such as the bitter almond.


*Key to grades: A: Strong scientific evidence for this use; B: Good scientific evidence for this use; C: Unclear scientific evidence for this use; D: Fair scientific evidence against this use (it may not work); F: Strong scientific evidence against this use (it likely does not work).

Uses based on tradition or theory
The below uses are based on tradition or scientific theories. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-itch, antispasmodic, cough suppressant, expectorant, hyperoxia (lack of oxygen), local anesthetic, mental health (neuropsychometric symptoms in AIDS patients), muscle relaxant, pain suppressant, psoriasis, sedative.

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Adults (18 years and older)
4-5 easily consumed in a day

Children (younger than 18 years)
one a day for kids over 5, less then 5 can use flax seed as cereal.

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Allergies to almonds are common and have lead to severe reactions, including throat swelling that interferes with breathing. If allergic to other nuts, it is probably best to avoid almonds.

Side Effects and Warnings
Laetrile, derived from the amygdalin found in the pits of fruits and nuts such as the bitter almond, is considered unsafe in any form due to its potential for causing cyanide toxicity. Reactions are more severe when laetrile is taken by mouth than when injected into a vein or muscle. Some of the side effects have included dilated pupils, dizziness, drooping eyelids, drowsiness, headache, increased breathing, muscle weakness, nausea, stomach pain and vomiting. High doses of bitter almond or laetrile may lead to a slowing of brain functions or breathing. Several cases of cyanide poisoning (some fatal) have been reported.Drowsiness or sedation may occur with bitter almond. Use cautiously if driving or operating heavy machinery.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Bitter almonds are not recommended in pregnant or breastfeeding women due to insufficient available data and potential risk for birth defects.



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