Trader Joe’s recently started stocking Sweet Apricot Kernels – a.k.a. poor man’s “almonds” or “bitter almonds” – in their nut aisle. This came as quite a surprise to me because my first though after seeing them was “aren’t apricot kernels poisonous?” The answer is yes, they actually are. Usually called “bitter almonds” in recipes, the kernels can be used used in jam, marzipan and amaretto liqueur. The kernels contain amygdalin, which produces cyanide when metabolized by the body. A study conducted by the State Department of Agriculture and Markets of New York in 1993 found that an 8-oz package of these kernels contains twice the lethal dosage of cyanide needed to kill an adult, but the USDA hasn’t had – or hadn’t at that time – had any reports of death associated with the product so you can still find it in some stores because it has many culinary uses. Consuming a small quantity of apricot kernels is most likely safe, though if you experience nausea, fever, headaches, weakness, lethargy, or any of the other symptoms of cyanide poisoning after eating the kernels, it would be best to seek medical attention.
In many countries outside of the US, sweet apricot kernels remain popular and are still quite widely available. They have a distinctly fruity flavor and remind me strongly of an apricot hard cider I had once. Nutty and slightly bitter, with an undercurrent of dried apricot. Despite their appearance, they don’t taste like almonds and are much softer in texture, although they are still crunchy. They grow on you after eating one or two, but they’re a bit of an acquired taste and aren’t going to replace any other nuts in my kitchen.