Bitter almond oil is different than that of sweet almond because it contains amygdalin, which is also found in plum, apricot and peach pits. Sweet almonds do not have this substance, which is toxic, so these almonds and their oils are safe. While bitter almond oil has a history of use worldwide, these days some uses for bitter almond oil are banned in the United States.
Cancer Treatment Claims
Bitter almond oil contains amygdalin, which may be used to create laetrile. Laetrile has been used worldwide as an alternative cancer treatment, according to Drugs.com. However, clinical evidence to support this use does not exist, and dangers outweigh possible benefits. The active anti-cancer agent likely is cyanide, advise the experts at the American Cancer Society, and the side effects from the oil mimic the symptoms of cyanide poisoning, including possible death. Laetrile is banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for cancer treatment. It's also banned in Europe. It is produced as well as promoted in Mexico, however.
Bitter almond oil is sometimes used in cooking, mainly for confectionaries. The oil is not available in the United States, however, because of its toxic properties. It's sometimes called "spirit of almonds," according to "A Modern Herbal," by Maude Grieve. You can get a synthetic version of bitter almond oil from bakers' supply shops or online, or you can substitute almond extract, according to The Cook's Thesaurus. Bitter almond that is processed to be free of prussic acid is on the FDA's generally recognized as safe list for food additives. Amygdalin releases prussic acid when mixed with water.
Almond trees are native to North Africa and western Asia, but have been cultivated historically by countries that border the Mediterranean. Ancient civilizations like Rome used bitter almond oil as a vermifuge, meaning to get rid of intestinal parasites, and to treat intermittent fevers, notes Grieve. Almond was likely introduced into England by the Romans, according to Grieve. In the Middle Ages, people used it as a laxative and a diuretic. It also was historically used as a cough suppressant. Bitter almond actually may possess anti-tussive, meaning cough suppressant, properties as well as expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties, according to Natural Standard.