Apricot Fruits and Kernels: Potential Benefits and Dangers
Fruits and Seeds
Apricots are sweet, delicious, and nutritious. They are rich in important vitamins and minerals, a good source of fibre, and a versatile recipe ingredient. Their flesh is a great addition to the diet. Their seed or kernel may not be. The kernel is located inside the pit (or stone) of the fruit. It contains a chemical called amygdalin, which our body converts into toxic cyanide.
The body can detoxify small quantities of cyanide. Kernels of the sour or bitter apricot contain a high level of amygdalin, however. This produces a large amount of cyanide in our body, which we may not be able to detoxify. The bitter fruit isn't available everywhere, but its seeds are often easier to find. They should be strictly limited in the diet and preferably avoided altogether.
The scientific name of both the sweet apricot tree and the bitter one is Prunus armeniaca. The two plants are different varieties of the same species. The nutritional and food benefits described below apply to the sweet fruit.
Nutrients and Potential Health Benefits
When sweet apricots are ripe they are bright orange and slightly soft. As in other fruits and vegetables, the orange colour indicates that beta-carotene and and/or related carotenoids are present. Beta-carotene is a yellow to orange pigment that is a form of vitamin A. Inside our bodies, beta-carotene is changed into the type of vitamin A that our cells need. The vitamin plays an important role in eye health and in the health of the immune system as well.
Apricots are a good source of vitamin C, which is needed for the growth and repair of body tissues. They contain a smaller but useful amount of vitamin E, which helps to protect cells by acting as an antioxidant. The fruits also contain B vitamins. There are eight vitamins in the B complex family. Each one has a specific group of functions. One member of the family that isn't present in apricots is vitamin B12, which is present in food obtained from animals.
The fruits contain useful amounts of certain minerals, including potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium, and iron. They are also a good source of soluble fibre. This type of fibre forms a gel when it mixes with water in the gastrointestinal tract. The gel helps to lower the cholesterol level in the blood.
The Function of Antioxidants
Vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidants. Antioxidants help to prevent cell damage caused by substances known as free radicals. The radicals are produced by normal activities in our cells. They are also made when we're exposed to environmental triggers such as radiation and certain chemicals.
If free radicals aren't removed, they can damage the DNA (the genetic material) in cells. When its DNA is damaged, a cell is unable to function normally. Free radicals are thought to play a role in aging. They may also play a role in the development of some diseases. Antioxidants are important components of cells because they neutralize free radicals.
Some people promote the use of antioxidant supplements for cancer prevention. The scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these supplements is mixed, however. It seems wisest to obtain antioxidants from our diet, which provides many other helpful nutrients.
Uses of Apricots
Fresh apricots are delicious when eaten on their own and when mixed with either sweet or savoury foods. They are especially good in:
- quick breads
- ice cream and yogurt
- cottage and ricotta cheese
- grains and cereals
- meat stews
Apricots are used to make jams, fruit drinks, and liqueurs. The fruits are sometimes grilled, roasted, or baked before being served.
Apriums and pluots are apricot-plum hybrids. Apriums have more apricot features while pluots have more plum ones.
Fresh apricots are only available in summer where I live. Luckily, I can still benefit from some of the fruit's nutrients by eating canned or dried versions. I look for fruit canned in juice instead of syrup and dried fruits that are dark in colour instead of bright orange.
Canned apricot halves with the liquid drained make a nice dessert. I like to add them to fruit salads and to salad greens. Yogurt, cottage cheese, or ricotta cheese make a good topping, especially when mixed with nuts, seeds, or spices. I also add the canned fruit to my breakfast cereal, or I reverse the proportions and add cereal as a topping for the fruit.
Dried apricots are tasty right out of the packet. They can be rehydrated in water on their own, in stewed fruit desserts, in baked goods, and in oatmeal. Apricots darken naturally as they dry. Dried versions that are bright orange have had sulphur dioxide added to them in order to preserve their colour. They may also contain sulphites, which cause an allergic reaction in some people.
I think that the dried fruits are delicious. The naturally prepared ones have a distinctive flavour instead of being simply sweet. As with all dried fruits, however, it's easy to eat too many at one serving. Since the fruits have lost water and decreased in volume, it may not look like we are eating very much when we put some in our mouth. If we think about how many fruits we are actually consuming, it may be a shock.
Uses of the Pits and Kernels
The ground pits of apricots are used to make exfoliating scrubs for skin. The seeds inside the pits look similar to almonds. Both sweet and bitter apricot kernels are ground and added to food for flavour. An oil is extracted from them for food or cosmetic use or for use in massage. The kernels are sometimes used instead of almonds in marzipan. Marzipan that is made from apricot or peach kernels instead of almonds is often referred to as persipan.
Bitter Apricot Kernels and Cyanide Poisoning
Sweet apricot kernels contain some amygdalin, but the seeds from bitter fruits contain a much higher level of the chemical. In our digestive tract, enzymes convert amygdalin to hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous. Our body can remove cyanide if only a small amount is present, but not if it's present at a high level.
Health Canada (a government organization) says that the kernels of sweet apricots are safe, assuming they're not eaten in huge quantities. They recommend that children don't eat bitter apricot kernels at all, however, and that adults limit their intake to no more than three seeds a day. They also say that the kernels should be ground and mixed with other food instead of being eaten on their own. I've found one scientific journal reference (listed in the "References" section below) which supports the idea that sweet apricot kernels contain much less amygdalin than ones from bitter fruits and are therefore safer.
The Food Standards Agency, which is part of the UK government, makes different recommendations from Health Canada. The agency says that because it's impossible to distinguish between sweet and bitter apricot kernels visually, they should be treated in the same way and avoided. It says that as little as half a large kernel (or as few as three small ones, according to the European Food Safety Authority) could be dangerous for an adult. However, it says that persipan paste is safe because the product has been treated by heat or another processing method that prevents harm from cyanide.
Possible symptoms of cyanide poisoning include a headache, a decrease in blood pressure, rapid heart beat, rapid breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, a blue tinge to the skin, and convulsions.
Kernels, Amygdalin, Laetrile, and Cancer
Some people promote the use of bitter apricot kernels (or bitter almond kernels, which also contain amygdalin) for cancer treatment. Amygdalin is broken down in stages by enzymes in the intestine. In the last stage, hydrogen cyanide and benzaldehyde are made. Promoters claim that the cyanide or the benzaldehyde kill cancer cells. They often recommend the ingestion of many bitter apricot kernels every day. This huge intake of amygdalin produces a large amount of cyanide in the gastrointestinal tract, which is dangerous.
Laetrile is a semi-synthetic chemical derived from amygdalin. It's sometimes referred to as vitamin B17, although it's not a vitamin. It's also referred to as amygdalin, thought it's not identical to this chemical. Like amygdalin, however, laetrile produces cyanide and benzaldehyde in the body. Some people claim that laetrile fights cancer. Health agencies say that the chemical is not only ineffective at treating cancer but is also dangerous. Researchers say that even laetrile that is injected instead of ingested is ineffective, though it may produce fewer side effects than the ingested form. The chemical is currently banned in the United States.
Delicious Fruit All Year Long
Apricots are useful fruits that are packed with nutrition and flavour. The flesh of the sweet variety is delicious in summer. At other times of the year, canned and dried fruits are good substitutes for the fresh ones.
The fruit with the pits removed can be a great addition to the diet. A person should be very careful if they want to use the seeds, however. There could be dangerous consequences, especially if bitter apricot kernels are eaten.
It's probably best that children avoid both types of kernels. If an adult decides to eat them, he or she should be certain that they come from sweet fruit and should avoid eating an excessive number. If they're tempted to eat kernels from bitter apricots (even in small quantities), they should seek their doctor's advice.
- Nutrients in apricots from SELFNutritionData (which obtains its data from the USDA, or United States Department of Agriculture)
- Information about carotenoids (including beta-carotene) from Oregon State University
- Antioxidant facts from MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health
- Dietary fibre information from the Mayo Clinic
- Facts about cyanide in bitter apricot kernels from Health Canada
- Amygdalin in bitter and sweet seeds of apricots (abstract) from the Toxicological & Environmental Chemistry Journal, Taylor & Francis
- Kernel advice from the Food Standards Agency in the UK
- Apricot kernels pose risk of cyanide poisoning from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
- Laetrile information from the National Cancer Institute
- Facts about laetrile from Cancer Research UK
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Linda Crampton