Almond oil question.
On the deadliness (or not) of bitter almond oil.
I get the weirdest questions in my email. Here's a rather interesting one:
I am looking for some information about medicinal uses of sweet and bitter almond oil in the Middle East.
In the early 1900's a Persian man died because he by mistake drank bitter almond oil instead of sweet almond oil. That is the offical explanation for his death.
I am trying to find out whether this is indeed plausible.
As far as I know, sweet almond oil was generally used as a purgative and laxative, both in Europe and the Middle East.
First I thought that bitter almond oil certainly tastes bitter and thus it would be impossible to confuse this.
But the whole thing seems to be more complicated. In one very general book on plants I read that in the Mediterranean there were supposedly techniques of making bitter almond oil, which did not have the bitterness.
In order to get a sense whether this was a possible/plausible mistake (or whether it seems likely that the man was murdered) I would need to know for what other kinds of illnesses almond oil both sweet and bitter was used and in what kind of consistencies and quantities it was usually administered.
That is, would a prescripton of sweet almond oil have been a spoon full, or glass? And, would the same amount of the bitter oil be sufficient for a lethal dosis?
If the lethal dosis of amygdalin/prussic acid for an average man of 70 kg is 70-140 mg, what amount of bitter almond oil or destillate in the form in which it was used in 19th c. Iran would he have to take?
For what purposes whas bitter almond oil used?
Was that produced as oil at all?
As far as I know, methods of destilling amygdalin/prussic acid from bitter almond oil were known since ancient times. However, did that taste bitter or neutral? Supposedly there were ways of producing bitter almond oil without bitterness--is that correct?
I don't know about Iran, but I do have classic texts from the USA and Britain online. Yes, bitter almond oil was produced: King's American Dispensatory - US Dispensatory - US Dispensatory - Sayre - British Pharmaceutical Codex (These are all very interesting).
Of the distilled oil, King's says: "Oil of bitter almond is officially described as 'a clear, colorless or yellowish, thin, and strongly refractive liquid, having a peculiar, aromatic odor, and a bitter and burning taste.'
"This oil also contains hydrocyanic acid: The quantity of the [hydrocyanic acid] may normally vary from 1.5 to 4 per cent"
I expect that any essential oil would be detrimental to the health of the subject ingesting it in tablespoon or deciliter amounts, and the distilled oil of bitter almond does contain hydrocyanic acid -- ingesting it would be a very bad idea indeed.
Of the expressed oil, King's says: "A clear, pale straw-colored or colorless, oily liquid, almost inodorous, and having a mild, nutty taste."
Uses of the expressed oil: "A non-poisonous, bland oil of agreeable taste, which may be given like olive oil, in dose of 1 to 8 drachms in mucilage or egg emulsion for the relief of chronic coughs."
... if the Persian died of oil of bitter almonds, it was likely the essential oil; hydrocyanic acid would have played a part, but not necessarily a large one in his hastened demise.
You do taste that you're not ingesting the correct oil, but any oil taken straight in any quantity tastes ghastly, so you knock your shot back in one go (or at least I would, to get it over with). Once you've done that there's no way you can get the essential oil back out again: it's a solvent and disappears extremely fast into any tissues it comes in contact with.
So yes, that's plausible. It's also a very unpleasant death.
Thanks for asking such an interesting question.