Why Almonds Don't Taste Like Almond Flavouring?

I don't know if you have noticed the difference in taste between the delicate nutty flavours of the common domesticated almonds and the very strong, distinctive flavouring of almond extract. I got curious and decided to investigate. This is the result of my enquiries:

The answer was very simple: the common, eating almond nuts and the almonds used to make "almond extract" are different. One is edible the second one is, potentially toxic. I am not going to focus on the first one, but one the wild bitter almond that is used in almond flavouring.

The wild bitter almonds is the original tree from almond trees family and is originated from Mediterranean and middle eastern region. The second type of almond tree, the domesticated non toxic one, seems to be a mutant of the wild bitter almond tree that has evolved to be able to grow and mature its fruits under much colder horizons.

As I said earlier the nut of the bitter almond is potentially dangerous. A study showed that just few bitter nut eaten in one sitting could kill a child. It is due to its defensive system. A bitter hydrogen cyanide* based poison that is generated when the kernel is broken. But, it turns out that one of the by-product of cyanide production is a molecule called benzaldehyde*. A volatile molecule that is the essence of wild almond flavour and a major contributor in the complex aromas of apricots, cherries, plums and peaches. The "safe" almond varieties lack of both bitterness and the characteristic aroma of the wild "unsafe" ones.

Note that in the U.S, wild bitter almonds are generally unavailable. Here, in Europe they are used in various food products, added in small amounts in marzipan (France) to bring depth to the mixture, they come into the making of amaretto liqueur in Italy as well as in the composition of amaretti biscuits, etc.

The commonest form of bitter-almond flavour is a bottled extract, which contains the aromatic benzaldehyde without its cyanide friend. The pure almond extract is benzaldehyde that is extracted from bitter almonds only, while natural almond extract contains our "B" friend produced from cassia bark (also known as cinnamon tree). Finally, the imitation extract is made with chemically synthesized benzaldehyde.

*Benzaldehyde: in simple words: oil of bitter almonds, C 6 H 5 CHO, the simplest representative of the aromatic aldehyde. It was first isolated in 1803 and was the subject of an important investigation by v.Liebig in 1837 . It occurs naturally in the form of the glucoside amygdalin (C20H27N011), which is present in bitter almonds, cherries, peaches and the leaves of the cherry laurel; and is obtained from this substance by hydrolysis with dilute acids: C20H27N011+2H20 =HCN+2C6H,206+C6H5CHO. It occurs free in bitter almonds, being formed by an enzyme decomposition of amygdalin.

*Hydrogen Cyanide: It is a molecule of the cyanogen family. They are highly toxic and volatile compounds, easily recognised by their almond like aromas. The hydrogen cyanide chemical formula is HCN, which means that it made of 1 atom of hydrogen, 1 atom of carbone and 1 atom of nitrogen. Plants have developed these poisons to warn animals and eventually kill them, in the purpose of allowing their seeds to mature and disperse. When the plant's tissue is damaged by chewing, the cyanogens are mixed with the plants enzyme that breaks them apart and release hydrogen cyanide.

Hydrogen cyanide rich-foods, such as manioc, bamboo shoots,and tropical variety of Lima beans are made safe for consumption by open boiling, leaching in water and fermentation.


  1. Ian said,

    Interesting. I buy natural almonds from a particular store, in each pack there are a few that are obscenely bitter and taste horribly of concentrated marzipan! i baulk and have to spit them out instantly! Hope I'm not being poisoned! :)

    on 31 July, 2010  

  2. Unknown said,

    Thanks for this explanation. I cracked a nut from a tree that is growing outside my house and ate it. Good thing they're hard to crack, and I only ate one. It did have a bitter taste followed by a very strong and pleasing almond flavor. Must be one of the bitter ones.

    on 21 September, 2010  

  3. Camilla said,

    Hi, I have been interested in this for a long time, being a forager. I live in an area with lots and lots of "wild almonds" which neighbors tell me have been planted by birds. That doesn't really make sense to me, since there are also orchards of commercial almonds nearby...and if the birds carried those seeds away for planting, it seems the "wild" ones would be the same stock. Anyhow, I do not think the wild almonds taste bitter, but they do definitely taste like almond flavoring. After eating quite a few of the "wild" almonds, one day I noticed that my fingers were numb. I stopped eating them, but am still very curious whether this was an effect of cyanide poisoning. Where did you get information on the wild almonds in your notes? Is there a way to remove the cyanide? Such as, making almond milk, roasting the almonds, etc? Thanks

    on 23 September, 2010  

  4. Yann_Chef said,

    Hi Camilla,

    I could not tell you if the almonds that you ate were wild or from the crops near you. But note that if you leave in the US they are not wild almond there (source H McGee).
    I am no specialist of the effect of hydrogen cyanide on the human body. All what I know is that has an effect on the cells of the respiratory system. But, there someone could give me more information on that. I got my information from several books in French (Herve Thys) and English (Harold McGee, Nicolas Kurty) as well as the FDA and the DRASS(France) and my food sciences lessons.
    In fact I do not think it is possible to get rid of the cyanide compound in wild bitter almonds as it is released when the kernel is broken.
    So, if were you I would would eat them in moderation but still a small amount now and then as wild almond are good for you (but not for children).
    Hope it helps

    on 24 September, 2010