The supermarket chain Whole Foods Market voluntarily recalled a line of organic raw almonds on November 7th due to possibily high levels of cyanide, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced. There are no known cases of sickness as a result of the bitter almonds, but the decision serves as a reminder that not all organic raw food is safe.
Bitter almonds come from the amara variety of the almond tree, as well as some trees from the more widely grown dulcis variety. The bitter taste is a result of glycoside amygdalin (C20H27NO11). When heated or exposed to certain enzymes and vitamins, this is converted to hydrogen cyanide, HCN. The FDA lists “dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, restlessness, and weakness,” as possible symptoms from moderate doses, and “convulsions, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, lung injury, slow heart rate, and respiratory failure leading to death” in higher doses.
The almonds were packaged by Marin Foods Specialities and labeled “Whole Foods Market Organic Raw Almonds” and listed as imported from Italy or Spain. They were sold in more than 50 stores in Northern California, the Pacific North West, Nevada and Idaho.
Glycoside amygdalin is also present in other members of the Prunus genus, including apricots and black cherries. In these cases, the chemical is confined to the kernel, rather than the fruit. Unsubstantiated claims that apricot kernel extracts are a cancer cure have led to cyanide overdoses, some of which have been fatal.
Raw almonds can also carry salmonella, which is why they are usually roasted, blanched or steamed.
Subscribers to the “naturalistic fallacy” assume that because the almonds are free from artificial chemicals or genes transferred from other species, they must be healthy. It's true organic foods are much less likely to be contaminated with pesticides or heavy metals than conventionally grown foods, but this does not always make them safe. Plants, animals and bacteria have spent millions of years finding ways to defend themselves and this often required killing hungry animals, including our ancestors. Some have got rather good at it. .
Whole Foods Market is the largest vendor of organic foods in the world and relies heavily on a reputation for environmental values and stocking produce healthier than that sold in other supermarkets. However, in 2010 it was sued for not listing potentially carcinogenic chemicals in cleaning and body care products and has faced critcism for promoting homeopathic products with discredited claims.