The almond that we think of as a nut is technically the seed of the fruit of the almond tree, a glorious medium-size tree that bears fragrant pink and white flowers. Like its cousins, the peach, cherry and apricot trees, the almond tree bears fruits with stone-like seeds (or pits) within. The seed of the almond fruit is what we refer to as the almond nut. Almonds are off-white in color, covered by a thin brownish skin, and encased in a hard shell. Almonds are classified into two categories: sweet (Prunus amygdalu var. dulcis) and bitter (Prunus amygdalu var. amara). Sweet almonds are the type that are eaten. They are oval in shape, usually malleable in texture and wonderfully buttery in taste. They are available in the market either still in their shell or with their shell removed. Shelled almonds are available whole, sliced or slivered in either their natural form, with their skin, or blanched, with their skin removed. Bitter almonds are used to make almond oil that is used as a flavoring agent for foods and liqueurs such as Amaretto. They are otherwise inedible as they naturally contain toxic substances such as hydrocyanic acid. These compounds are removed in the manufacturing of almond oil. A high-fat food that's good for your health? That's not an oxymoron, its almonds. Almonds are high in monounsaturated fats, the same type of health-promoting fats as are found in olive oil, which have been associated with reduced risk of heart disease. Five large human epidemiological studies, including the Nurses Health Study, the Iowa Health Study, the Adventist Health Study and the Physicians Health Study, all found that nut consumption is linked to a lower risk for heart disease. Researchers who studied data from the Nurses Health Study estimated that substituting nuts for an equivalent amount of carbohydrate in an average diet resulted in a 30% reduction in heart disease risk. Researchers calculated even more impressive risk reduction--45%--when fat from nuts was substituted for saturated fats (found primarily found in meat and dairy products). In addition to their cholesterol-lowering effects, almonds' ability to reduce heart disease risk may also be partly due to the antioxidant action of the vitamin E found in the almonds, as well as to the LDL-lowering effect of almonds' monounsaturated fats. (LDL is the form of cholesterol that has been linked to atherosclerosis and heart disease). When almonds are substituted for more traditional fats in human feeding trials, LDL cholesterol can be reduced from 8 to 12%.