Extract of Cyanide

Friday, July 17, 2009

So I tossed the first batch of noyaux extract. I learned that basically I was making a jar of sweet smelling poison. Which is good to know for a variety of reasons, but is kind of a disappointment baking wise.

A quick recap: apricot pits, cherry pits, peach leaves, and bitter almonds all get their heavenly aroma of almonds from prussic acid, otherwise known as cyanide. Generally trace amounts of it are so small that it's virtually harmless; hence people using it to flavor ice creams, custards, and jams. As such I figured that it would be a clever way to brew up some of my own almond extract.

I double roasted the pits and the shells in order to eliminate the enzyme, amygdalin which, when it comes into contact with water creates cyanide. I then placed these in a jar with some vodka and planned on letting it sit and brew, hoping for extract.

Still, I was a bit nervous. When flavoring foods with these food stuffs that have cyanide, the amounts that come out are so minuscule it doesn't have the ability to harm you. However, leeching it out for 8 months? That was a bit different, my noyaux extract had a good chance of making me quite sick or being downright lethal.
-Brewing this put probably put me on a government terrorist watch list.-

Elise, curious if the technique would work or would just be dangerous to ingest wrote to Darrel Corti, the well known food oracle. If anyone knew if this experiment would be safe it would be him. He wrote back saying that the toxic compound in the oil had to be extracted first, and that it might not be safe.

I threw the batch out because I loaded it up with so many pits that I became a bit nervous. This was about 30 some pits, plus a few shells. I was fine with maybe 10 of 12, as I had eaten about nine of them to no ill effect (I did have a small stomach pang, but I'm well convinced that was psychosomatic and brought on through my own worrying as it went away instantly when I distracted myself reading a book).

It was the next day Elise had e-mailed a chemist friend of hers who sent a different reply. Now, not to put down on Corti, but I gathered a guy with a PhD would probably have a bit more insight into the matter, or at the very least a different one. He wrote the following and provided a variety of insightful links which discuss the human consumption of foods that use noyaux:
Sounds worth a try.

There are "bitter" almonds (or apricots) that contain high levels of amygdalin (the cyanide containing compound). But "sweet" almonds contain much less, and are considered safe.

Figure out how many almonds or apricot pits you think are safe to eat in their raw or roasted form. If you make your extract from that many, and no more, then you will certainly be safe, since at worst you will be getting all of the amygdalin in the extract, but at best you might get next to none.







This seemed like a practical answer to the problem. Out of curiosity then, I've started a new jar hoping it might work. (I am, admittedly, a tinge peeved at myself for throwing the old one away which contained 8 ounces of good vodka.)

The day I try it I'll have poison control on speed dial just to be sure, but I believe Simon has a point. If I use a safe consumable amount I should be fine. Furthermore, if I am only using a teaspoon at a time to flavor an entire dish then the amount ingested is microscopic.
-Ingesting this quantity would result in a delicious, bittersweet, almond flavored death (or at the very least, a stomachache).-


  1. I dont know much about how much cyanide is in almonds, but I do work with cyanide in my job as a chemist. The antidote used to be amyl nitrate, as it opens up the capillaries. I think recently they decided the only treatment is oxygen. You're pretty screwed if you get poisoned though!

    Having said that, I absolutely love almonds and all things almondy and I'm very interested to learn about your project!

  2. Oh, I must say now I feel a bit nervous for you. an acquiantance of ours was murdered with cynide and it was a terrible death.

    Maybe you can get a chemist to test it before you consume it? I am excited to see if it turns out good.

  3. I just recently saw apricot kernel paste mentioned in Modern Baking. Funny, all these years I'd never been aware of something, and then twice in one week I read about it! I remember picking them out as a kid and my mother telling me not to eat them. I think I probably did anyway thought :)

  4. It's time for a new hobby, darlin'.

  5. With cyanide,I agree that discretion is the better part of valor! Butan interesting experiment all the same.

  6. Good grief! Let's move on to something I might actually like to try....

  7. wowww that's one of the reason I love your blog : it's well written and full of information! I don't know why you're not in my links yet... poor memory I guess! I'm off to add you!

  8. I can't imagine they would kill you. My mom has always made almond congee with those pits. You can buy them from most Chinese markets in either the sweet or bitter almond variety.

  9. My experience with Apricot Kernel Paste.

    Way back in the late 1970's some health food stores sold a product called Apricot Kernel Paste. It was sold under the "Hunza" brand name label.
    Twas an extremely smoothly ground, slightly oily paste, an off-white/ bone colour.
    This proved to be the only food that I ever actually developed a real craving for. I ate it by the teaspoon full, just letting it 'melt' in my mouth.
    I found it absolutely Delicious and consumed approx 1 Kg (three 375gm jars) every month for about 12-18 months. (I'm an "all or nothing" person).
    No noticeable ill effects whatsoever. The only reason I stopped consuming it was because it became no longer available.
    Mmmwhah! My mouth still waters, just thinking of it. I wish I could find more of the same nowadays.
    *N.B. There were NO traces of the outer skin in the paste. I understand the skin contains the cyanide... ?? Have been told the skins can be removed after steaming.
    Considering I can no longer find it commercially available I might try making my own come apricot season.

  10. I think I've read that the cyanide is in the kernel, not the outer shell. The cyanide actually will not make you sick if you eat the kernel whole; however, if you grind the kernel it will release enzymes that will react with the molecule that has CN in it and will release the HCN. Actually, you have some of these needed enzymes in your stomach, but not enough to make a kernel poisonous if you ate the kernel whole (it's all about equilibrium because you also have enzymes that will make the poison none poisonous). Also, another factor to consider is heat. If you heat the kernels enough, it will denature the enzymes that could release the HCN ionic compound, and then the kernel is perfectly safe to eat. As proof that the key ingredient in making a peach kernel poisonous is the enzyme, consider vitamin B17 -- pure amygdalin. People in the 70's took large quantities of this medicine in belief that it would help cure their cancer. It was perfectly safe unless, like in one example, they took their medicine with ground up peach kernel. That's obviously lethal.

    Also, peach kernels have very little cyanide. From what I've read, approximately 909 g of wet peach pit is needed to POTENTIALLY be lethal (I think that was based off of a L50 statistic, so it probably has a 50% chance of being lethal at that dose). The bitter almonds on the other hand are very poisonous, and I've read that as little as 7-8 could kill a child. Oh, yeah, of course all of these statistics are based off of an assumed body weight (I think 160lbs-ish).

    By the way...the US prohibits the sale of bitter almond because of the high content. We aren't a third world country so most medicines and foods are safe to eat unless you stuff yourself to the point of being sick anyway o.O...

    Oh, one last thing. The chemist you talked to may not study organic chemistry/toxicology. My guess is the chemist didn't know the exact answer himself, probably found a couple of research papers that said the kernel could be poisonous, and gave you the safest answer possible, because, after all, who would want to be responsible for the possible poisoning of another human being? Basically what I'm saying is that he gave you an answer that most definitely errs on the side of caution. I personally think you will be fine if you make sure to cook the kernels thoroughly, but it's all about how much you are willing to risk (string beans are potentially poisonous as well if not cooked).

  11. I am trying to do the same thing with my bitter almonds and wondered a) how your experiment worked, and b) how many almond seeds and how much vodka did you use? Oh, and did you roast them for blanch them first? If so, for how long?

    I am eager to hear how it turned out! Let me know at poohnda@hotmail.com :)

  12. I have read that having a bitter apricot seed or 2 a day will keep you healthy from cancer. I have never had any ill effects and I was glad to know this little tidbit.


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