Organic alert: Whole Foods almonds contain potentially ‘fatal’ natural chemical

| | November 11, 2014

Whole Foods is recalling a line of Organic Raw Almonds, due to elevated levels of a natural chemical, hydrogen cyanide, that could be fatal if consumed in high amounts, according to an announcement from the Food and Drug Administration.

The product, a bitter almond imported from Spain and Italy, is produced by Marin Food Specialties, Inc. of Byron, CA, who agreed to the voluntary recall. A naturally occurring chemical in the Whole_Foods_recalled_almonds_from_Italyalmonds commonly called hydrogen cyanide but known technically as glycoside amygdalin transforms into toxic prussic acid after an almond is crushed or chewed.  Hydrogen cyanide is a natural component in peach and apricot pits. Almonds are a member of the same family.

“Eating foods that contain prussic acid may result in some or all of the following signs and clinical symptoms within minutes: dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, restlessness and weakness,” according to the recall notice.

“Exposure to higher quantities of food containing prussic acid may cause other more serious health effects including convulsions, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, lung injury, slow heart rate and respiratory failure leading to death.”

The USDA and the California Almond Board recommends against the consumption of untreated raw almonds, but for a different reason. The government introduced a “pasteurization” rule in 2007 in response to a string of salmonella outbreaks linked to large almond processing plants in 2001 and 2004; thirty-three people became ill, but no one died. Pasteurization is designed to kill microbial foodborne pathogens, which is why consumers are warned not to eat unpasteurized or raw almonds. However, the regulation does not apply to imported almonds, most of which, like the Whole Foods products, are organic.


According to the Almond Board, five methods of “pasteurization” are permitted: oil roasting, dry roasting, blanching, steam processing, and the use of propylene oxide (PPO). A sixth method involved irradiating the almonds, and this was used for a number of years, but now the Almond Board states that “Almond pasteurization does not include irradiation.”

Hydrogen cyanide is a chemical component and cannot be “killed” by pasteurization.

Many ‘natural health’ and organic activists–particularly those supporting GMO labeling–aggressively oppose, and even mock, any restrictions on the sale of raw almonds or pasteurization measures.

“[T]hirty-three people became ill, but no one died” from the salmonella incidents linked to raw almonds, the Alliance for Natural Health writes derisively on its website denouncing the USDA safety protocol. “Contrast that to the thousands of deaths caused by prescription drugs each year! …California’s Almond Board colluded with the USDA to propose mandatory ‘sterilization’ across the industry, and the USDA agreed to implement and enforce the new rule.”

The recall notice stressed the importance of monitoring symptoms: “Showing these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to cyanide. Treatment with supportive measures and available specific and efficacious antidotes frequently allows survival.”

The almonds were labeled as “Whole Foods Market Organic Raw Almonds Imported from Italy” and “Whole Foods Organic raw Almonds Imported from Spain” and packaged in 13.5 oz. plastic tubes. A complete list of Whole Foods stores where the product was sold can be found in the recall notification.

No illnesses or deaths have yet been reported.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center, Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

57 thoughts on “Organic alert: Whole Foods almonds contain potentially ‘fatal’ natural chemical”

  1. Cool. They are properly labeled so they can be easily tracked, a recall was put in place, and the recall is going as intended, and no one has been killed. Looks like WF is handling everything just right.

    Now, if a GMO ever does this, we won’t have any idea what to recall since we don’t label them.

    • John, so you’re the organic “spin doctor”, huh? You’ve been taught well – transfer the organic problem onto the competitor (GM) that hasn’t been implicated.

      • Oh please, this whole website is spin. This article is just a hit piece on organic. I can demagogue the issue just as easily as Jon Entine, although I don’t get paychecks from Syngenta to do it.

      • Of course it’s a hit piece…it’s supposed to be a hit piece, a bit tongue in cheek maybe, but very effective.
        And what’s he hitting? He’s hitting the insane junk science greenie activists use to make these very same kinds of claims against virtually every modern advancement in technology, agriculture, chemistry and modern life as a whole – whether it involves the lies about DDT or cell phone radiation.
        And It’s a good hit piece!

        • Oh, one more thing. I do so tire of these personal “shill for industry” attacks. I don’t know how much funding Jon gets – or ever got – from Syngenta, but the late Elizabeth Whelan who founded the American Council on Science and Health was accused to the same kind of thing by greenie/red activist’s years ago. She responded by saying if they thought her views could be swayed by money then they needed to write her a check and see what happens. She never did get that check.

          If anyone truly believes Jon can be swayed by funding grants – then by all means – you need to write him a check and see what happens.

          • elkoz, unless you’re sleeping with Jon Entine (and even then), I don’t think you can say you know him well enough to say he who would never do such a thing. People can be conflicted by money in all sorts of ways. Many people also like the idea of being on tv, getting articles printed, being in the public eye. It appeals to their sense of reputation and their self-esteem. I’ve seen Monsanto and the GMO industry “groom” many middle-aged, so-so professors in such a way. They were nobodies, suddenly they’re on tv, they’re in the media, they feel they are someone and are doing something important, the money is just for their appearance fee they tell themselves. Making a point about organic industry being conflicted is one thing, but to outright deny the existence of conflicts of interest altogether and say “our Jon Entine would never do such a thing” is at a level of thinking that really I can’t even imagine.

    • Are you under the impression that we can’t find out where conventionally grown crops, including GMOs, are produced? Add this to the growing list of stupid labeling arguments.

    • So John–I’m told all the time that there are all these countries that label. Has there ever been an incident related to GMOs?

      These countries include plenty with state-of-the-art epidemiology and even national health services. Please show me all the GMO related issues you know about.

    • This has nothing to do with labeling. The specific importer whose almonds exceeded safe levels of cyanide knows where they got them from. If they were being sold in bulk bins sourced from multiple places, they could still be “organic” but the retailer would still have to go through an investigation if the problem were discovered downstream from the original source after mixing with other growers’ almonds. Labeling is a total red herring here. The cantaloupes contaminated with salmonella a few years ago that sickened a bunch of people weren’t labeled “grown on farm X in Colorado” but they figured out where they were from anyway. And suppose this was, instead, a problem with say GM papaya that was labeled “GMO”. How exactly would the GMO label have helped identify the source? The argument you’re making is completely incoherent.

    • why not?
      Even if they aren’t labeled as GMOs they will be labelled as something else which will be unique and can be used to distinguish it from other brands
      Your logic makes no sense.

    • From the FDA notice: “Marin Foods Specialties, Inc. of Byron, CA is voluntarily recalling Organic Raw Almonds (bitter almonds), due to them possibly containing elevated levels of naturally occurring hydrogen cyanide according to laboratory test results. To date, no human illnesses have been associated with these products and they have been pulled from sale.”

      Apparently, the recall was not due to a cluster of illnesses that was traced back to this particular product. It was probably that the company that packages these products for whole foods performs regular analysis of the bitter almonds to monitor prussic acid levels and discovered a lot that had elevated levels. They were properly labeled — with the upc code and packaging dates that enabled the company to identify the stores where the products would have been sold. This is the same upc code that would appear on all food packaging, regardless of whether the source were certified organic, non-gmo verified, or lacked process labeling. The organic certification was irrelevant to determining what store locations and dates the item was distributed to after it left Marin Food Specialties. Some requirement that whole foods or food ingredients derived from ge varieties were labled with a “contains gmos” disclosure would not have been a help in tracing the distribution of products.

  2. Food and Drug Administration and others who call this product like “poison” are the first criminals against american people. The bitter almond is one of the best cleaners of body.

      • People forget that bitter almond cyanide was called Laetrile. It was said to cure cancer by killing cancer cells more rapidly than it killed healthy cells. This offended the drug companies and their doctor allies, who were claiming that their very expensive poisons killed cancer cells faster than they killed healthy cells.

        So they got the FDA to ban bitter almonds and recommend the expensive patented poisons. I’m glad to hear that bitter almonds might be available again. They always pleased me.

        • The FDA banned ‘laetrile’ because some people who took it died of cyanide poisoning, not because of drug companies.
          Chemotherapeutics do kill cancer cells preferentially to healthy cells, because they work by killing mitosing cells, and cancer cells have a higher mitotic rate than most normal cell types in the body.
          If you want to kill yourself with cyanide, that’s your choice I guess.

  3. “yet”. Also, I think the big takeaway is that the “natural” label is totally bogus. Belladonna is natural. Doesn’t mean it’s good. And the meaning of organic is so malleable as to be meaningless.

    • The use of the word organic on food labels is tightly regulated by the USDA/FDA. The word you’re thinking of is “natural” which can be slapped on almost anything.

      • I understand the difference and know the USDA regulation of the term “organic”. I am talking more about the idea that organic somehow implies “better”. This is a marketing scheme promoted by Big Organice (B.O.). As a result the terms “natural” and “organic” and “good” are all conflated. I have also had anti-GMO health food people express deep distrust of the USDA, except, of course, when it comes to the organic stamp of approval. It’s all just a puddle of muddle.

        • Actually they don’t like the USDA being involved in the organic label either. They’re constantly whining about how difficult they make it for organic farmers, having to follow all those rules. It seems rather as though they want the label to be meaningless.

          • You need to refresh your history on how USDA came to regulate organic. USDA were the ones who didn’t want to do it but were forced to by organic lobbies who got Congress to pass a law requiring them to develop the organic rules. And in the first draft, USDA allowed GM to also be organic, but the screams and yells from the organic folks forced them to backtrack on this. Check it out, it’s all in the public record.

        • The end product may be indistinguishable but the effect on the farm, the soil can be night and day. Long term sustainable agriculture is one of the goals of organic farming. If we continue to destroy the microorganisms the soil becomes dead. We have to up the technology of planting and pest suppression to make up for the impoverishment of the land and there is no guarantee that we can continue in this fashion. Often there is a marked difference in flavor and satisfaction in organic food that discourages overeating.

  4. People seem to forget that wild almonds are TOXIC. Domestication reduced the amount of cyanide markedly but did not eliminate it. Processing further reduces it.

    Kind of stupid to eat unprocessed almonds.

  5. …nice “straw-man” treatment of a real story…it sound like the nuts from Italian orchards contain excessive amounts of organic acid (due to soil chemistry?) – but you use it as an opportunity to mock…

    • Not even close, Neil. As the author correctly stated, almonds MAKE prussic acid (cyanide) as part of their normal biochemistry. They, and many other stone fruits (peaches, cherries, plums, etc.) have been making cyanide for many millions of years. It doesn’t come from the soil. Most likely it is a result of natural selection, where stone fruits that make it are less likely to be eaten by insects, thus survive better. It’s just one example of how nature conducts chemical warfare, and always has done so since the evolution of life on this planet.

  6. It’s ironic to see how you nutcases come out and try to rationalize & explain away the fact that people got sick from eating Hole Foods bitter almonds. It’s clear that you are defending Hole Foods almonds just because they are labeled “organic”. To you who just adore Hole Foods and their ilk because of their touchy-feely “organic” marketing smarm, I smell an agenda coming from you. It reeks.

  7. I eat a lot of Almonds. I buy about 8 lbs of these raw almonds from Whole Foods in Las Vegas, NV every week, all of which I consume. All this week I have been as ill as I’ve ever been. Fatigue, Racing Heartbeat, Dizziness, blurred vision, stomach cramps, restlessness, general mal, and all the emotions and psychological anxiety about wondering what was wrong with me. I cannot believe whole foods has put me through HELL for the past week!

    • To Tengu: I started making almond milk from raw almonds I bought from SAM’s club and feel the same symptoms. Some almonds are sprayed with propalene glycol (sorry about the spelling) and are also sprayed with Roundup. I will disconinue what I thought was a health food, until I get more trustworthy information.

  8. Why does Entine’s biography suggest he left ABC to persue his own career when the truth is he was fired? Why doesn’t the biography instead say “Jon Entine is a corporate propagandist and pseudo-journalist who
    utilizes his media savvy to promote the opinions and positions of
    chemical corporations, by posing as an independent journalist. Entine
    has multiple, documented ties to biotech companies Monsanto and
    Syngenta, and plays a key propaganda role via another industry front
    group known as the American Council on Science and Health, (
    a thinly-veiled corporate front group that Sourcewatch describes as
    holding “a generally apologetic stance regarding virtually every other
    health and environmental hazard produced by modern industry, accepting
    corporate funding from Coca-Cola, Kellogg, General Mills, Pepsico, and
    the American Beverage Association, among others.”

    Why doesn’t the biography acknowledge that he was ordered to attend anger management classes after a court found him to be “irrational and unpredictable”?

  9. Richids: Your tripe regarding the ACSH is a sure signal not to believe anything else you stated. The late Dr. Elizabeth Whelan (the founder of the ACSH, and a respected epidemiologist) once challenged anyone who thought she and her organization could be bought to send her a check with the intent to receive favoritism in what she published and advocated. No one ever sent her that check. In fact, Dr. Whelan was a major force against the tobacco industry, and she fought valiantly for 3 decades for the protection of public health against the junk science that so frequently gets promoted on public media.

    Oh, and just for fun I did click on the “Sourcewatch” link that you provided. It said there is “currently no text on this page”, i.e. it’s empty. I presume that you just checked it now too, so we must all conclude that there is nothing there. That would be typical of an organization that prides itself as opposing anything except communistic ideas. There’s a lot of that going around these days…

  10. NOT TOXIC. The truth IS that glycoside amygdalin from bitter almonds, other members of the rose family and other plant species is non-toxic to humans! The opposite is true it is very beneficial, it extends the life of healthy humans and kills cancer dead! The FDA has continually prevented the importation of bitter almonds with different excuses because it works. In ’70s the FDA ban apricot kernels for a time also.

    • No evidence exists to support your wild claims. Amygdalin (also known as laetrile) was touted several decades ago by a bunch of Mexican quacks who wanted to lure desperate cancer patients from wealthy countries to come to their so-called “clinics”, then charge their victims their life savings for worthless injections of the stuff. They died anyway. The only place that laetrile kills cancer cells is in vitro, i.e. tissue culture cells growing in artificial culture media. Just about every chemical will do that…including soap and dish detergent. That doesn’t mean that laetrile will function in vivo (in the human body). Your post is extremely misleading and downright dangerous. It’s a good thing that you don’t have any decision making power over anything of importance like cancer.

      • You’re an idiot. read up on Laetrile and B17. It cures cancer. It’s been proven time and time again. Isn’t it one bit suspicious that something that is touted as curing cancer naturally is banned by the FDA? Both times with the apricot seeds and now bitter almonds. What people don’t realize is that CANCER is extremely profitable. Radiation which isn’t very effective yet costs a lot more than some almonds or apricot seeds. I would spread misinformation about the one thing that has been proven to cure cancer and try to ban it too. Good thing Europe isn’t as corrupt as America to not ban something that will cure cancer. Read up on it, do the research.

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