Q: When is an apricot kernel not an apricot kernel?
A: When it’s an almond, as droves of Chinese grocery shoppers are learning to their dismay.
Apricot kernels have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat afflictions such as colds and coughs. Almonds have a similar flavor, but are not believed to have the same medicinal value. So, Chinese grocery shoppers were dismayed to learn that the “American big apricot kernels” they’d been buying from retailers like Walmart for years were nothing more than common American almonds.
According to the Global Times, the misunderstanding is a result of a translation error that dates back to the 1970s. When the Almond Board of California began marketing their products in China, at first they used several different translations for the word “almond:”
- xingren, or “apricot kernels”
- badanmu, or “almonds”
- biantaoren, or “flat peach kernels”
“Xingren” was the translation that stuck around, and most if not all Chinese consumers believed they were, in fact, buying apricot kernels.
Walmart shopper Zhao Hong told the Global Times:
“But when I heard that the nuts I bought are in fact almonds, I felt I’d been cheated…”The translation misled me, and I thought the almonds were apricot kernels from the US.”
She wasn’t the only one taken aback. The Chinese government was, too. The decades-old translation error only came to light in 2009, when the China National Food Industry Association tried to create an industry standard for apricot kernels. Weng Yangyang, secretary-general of the Specialized Committee for Roasted Seeds and Nuts, said the committee was “shocked when the ABC told us the ‘American big apricot kernels’ are not apricot kernels, and so have no association with the compilation of the industry standards.”
Even worse, “American big apricot kernels” go for several times the price of actual Chinese apricot kernels, with prices buoyed by the fact that produce from America is often believed to be superior. Plus, almonds are naturally bigger and thus have an advantage over real apricot kernels, as Meng Xianwu, director of the Working Committee of Apricot Kernels at the Association of Cash Forest of China under the State Forestry Administration, explained:
“Almonds can be easily puffed up during processing, while apricot kernels will be broken during the process. Consumers naturally would choose the bigger ones over the small ones.”
All of this goes to show how important it is to get your product names translated correctly the first time. The translation error may have given California almonds an advantage in the past, but it remains to be seen what will happen to their sales once the mistake is corrected.