Dangerous Foods: The Unexpected Poison Lurking Inside Apricots

Apricots hang from a tree during a Village Harvest volunteers harvest apricot trees at Guadalupe Historic Orchard on June 25, 2013 in San Jose, California. Village Harvest and other San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit groups are volunteering to pick excessive fruit from homeowners' yards and other plots of land to donate to food banks, soup kitchens and organizations that help the needy. Urban harvesting, or gleaning, aims to collect fruit that normally goes to waste after it goes unpicked and falls to the ground. Village Harvest has donated thousands of pounds of fruit to local organizations. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Monday, the BMJ published an odd case report: doctors diagnosed a man with cyanide poisoning, which he got from apricot kernel extract.

The diagnosis comes on the heels of another case of cyanide poisoning coming from fruit pits. Three cherry pits poisoned a man in the U.K., who had to be hospitalized after cracking them open and eating the soft inside.

Both men survived. The man who ate the cherry pits, Matthew Crème, received medical treatment and said that cherry packages should come with warning labels, so people know not to eat pits. The man who consumed extract of apricot pits decided to continue taking it regularly because he believes it treats his cancer.

How Dangerous Apricot Pits?

Many stone fruits like peaches, plums and cherries contain amygdalin, which is highly concentrated in the pit. (Apricot kernels are inside the pit and also contain high concentrations of amygdalin.) The human body converts amygdalin into cyanide, which can result in poisoning if you eat enough.

Despite this danger, you could easily obtain these pits in the produce section of a grocery store—if you bought enough fruit and opened them up. But if you accidentally swallow a few cherry pits, you should be fine because the hard outside of the pit protects you from absorbing the toxic insides. Even if you accidentally grind up one pit in your smoothie, that amount of amygdalin won't kill you.

Cyanide poisoning becomes a risk when people intentionally eat the inside of pits or kernels. Crème had been cracking open the cherry pits to eat the meat inside.

Some people even eat stone fruit pits or take extracts from them intentionally. In fact, you can buy apricot kernels directly from nuts.com and Jet.com. Sunfood also sells a package of sweet apricot kernels, which contains a warning on the back not to eat more than 8 in a day. Organic Traditions sells packages of bitter apricot seeds, mentioning that some people use it as a cancer treatment.

Will It Cure Cancer?

The compound inside apricot pits is sometimes called B17, but its formal name is amygdalin. Many alternative medicine sites claim that apricot kernels can cure cancer, but peer-reviewed medical studies reveal that they have no cancer-fighting properties.

In 1980, the FDA banned the sale of Laetrile, a drug sourced from apricot kernels, due to the risk of cyanide poisoning and the lack of health benefits. But that hasn't stopped the damage from eating the kernels straight—a danger not confined to adults seeking alternative remedies. In 2010, a 2-year-old ate about 10 apricot pits and subsequently died of cyanide poisoning.