Almond extract — the natural version — comes from almonds, which are native to the Middle East. Historians believe that almond trees were among the first domesticated fruit trees. From the Middle East, almonds would eventually reach Greece and then Rome. Almonds were traded throughout the first millennium into the Middle Ages. They were traded throughout the Mediterranean region and traveled along the Silk Road, along with spices from the East.
The almond tree would make its way to California in the United States by the mid-1700s, but it wouldn’t be a viable crop until the 19th century. By the start of the 20th century, almonds were a major crop in the state’s Central Valley.
In part, the flavoring industry that would produce almond extract came about as a part of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, which enabled foods to be transported from more distant places. Those foods had to be processed to withstand shipping, which resulted in food being less flavorful. Flavoring extracts were developed to meet the demand for foods with flavor.
When discussing the history of the almond flavor, it is important to make a distinction between the different kinds of almond extract as well as between almond extract and almond flavoring (also known as imitation almond extract). Many people confuse the three including some culinary experts.
Natural almond extract is made from cassia bark, the same product used to make a type of cinnamon. Pure almond extract (the most widely used kind) is made from almonds or the pits of certain stone fruits. Imitation almond extract and is made from chemicals that simulate the almond flavor. Almond extract made from stone fruit and not almond oil is sometimes called almond essence.
Pure almond extract consists of bitter almond oil, alcohol, and water. The almond oil is the source of the flavor, which comes from a compound in the oil called benzaldehyde. You can find benzaldehyde in the pits of other fruits, which is why they are sometimes used to make almond extract. In almond flavoring, the benzaldehyde is synthetic and formulated in a lab rather than extracted.
Almond extract flavor profile
Almond extract does not taste much like whole almonds, but it does offer a rich, nutty flavor that can taste fruity to some people.
Health benefits of almond extract
While almonds are healthy nuts that provide nutrients, almond extract has no significant nutritional content. You will not get much in terms of nutritional value from pure or natural almond extract.
Despite its lack of nutrition, almond extract does have some benefits for alleviating or preventing health conditions like:
- Obesity: Almond extract can add a significant amount of flavor to food without increasing its calorie load, so it won’t cause weight gain.
- Diabetes: Almond enhances the flavor of desserts and other sweet preparations without adding sugar. It does not cause spikes in blood sugar or insulin.
The bitter almond oil used to make almond extract can contain a compound called amygdalin that can be toxic. This is not a concern with almond extract since the amygdalin is usually broken down. Not enough of it will remain in a bottle of almond extract to be harmful.
Almond extract is the main flavoring ingredient in Italian biscotti and can be used in cheesecakes, cookies, and other desserts. Almond extract can be added to stewed fruit, coffee, and the batter for French toast. In China, almond essence is essential for the popular almond jelly snack.