A man who took apricot kernels to beat cancer got cyanide poisoning
The kernels are believed to treat cancer, but they’re actually poisonous
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Many people believe that apricot kernels, which are found inside apricot pits, can beat cancer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A 67-year-old man in Australia got cyanide poisoning from the apricot kernel extract he was taking to beat cancer. The man didn’t die, but he had abnormally low levels of oxygen in his body — a side effect of cyanide poisoning that can be fatal.
Doctors in Melbourne realized the patient had low oxygen levels when he was under anesthesia for a routine surgery. Blood tests later revealed he had cyanide levels in his blood 25 times the accepted level. His case, described in the journal BMJ Case Reports, shows how alternative medications, including sham cancer treatments, can put patients at risk.
Many people believe that apricot kernels — the soft, almond-like seeds found inside apricot pits — can fight or prevent cancer. The 67-year-old in the case study had prostate cancer, and had been taking the apricot kernel extract, as well as a fruit kernel supplement called Novodalin, to prevent his prostate cancer from coming back, says study co-author Alex Konstantatos, the Head of Pain Medicine at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia.
Apricot kernels contain amygdalin, a compound also called laetrile, that is converted into cyanide in the body. Cyanide is toxic to cells because it interferes with their oxygen supply; it is particularly bad for the brain and heart, which require constant oxygen to function. People who believe in the power of apricot kernels think that this cyanide is only toxic to cancer cells, but scientists say that’s not true. “It is likely to kill all cells of the body equally,” Konstantatos writes in an email to The Verge. Laetrile doesn’t have any anticancer activity, according to the National Cancer Institute, and its use for treating cancer is illegal in the US.
Apricot kernels don’t cure cancer, and they might poison you
Cyanide can cause nausea, headaches, insomnia, and nervousness, but it can also lead to death. In a report published last year, the European Food Safety Authority — Europe’s food safety watchdog — warned of many cases of children who were hospitalized because of cyanide poisoning caused by apricot kernels. A 28-month-old girl died because of high cyanide levels in her blood after eating 10 kernels.
The patient described in the case report was at the hospital for a routine surgery to check his bladder and urethra, called a cystoscopy. While he was under anesthesia, the doctors noticed that he had abnormally low levels of oxygen, called hypoxia. Because all cells need oxygen to function, hypoxia can have serious consequences, including death. So the doctors ordered some blood work. “The gentleman involved is very pleasant, intrigued and very inquisitive so he was happy to assist with our enquiries,” Konstantatos says.
The blood tests showed that the 67-year-old had high levels of thiocyanate, one of the byproducts of cyanide breakdown in the body. Thiocyanate is easier to measure than cyanide, so when the tests pointed to high thiocyanate levels, more blood was sent to a forensic laboratory near Sydney to confirm high levels of cyanide, says Konstantatos. The patient was found to have 25 times the accepted cyanide levels in his blood. That’s because he was ingesting two teaspoons of homemade apricot kernel extract and three tablets of Novodalin per day, equaling to 17.32 milligrams of cyanide.
Konstantatos says he wrote about this case study because he wanted to highlight that patients often take supplements and other “alternative medications” that can have serious health effects. But doctors often only ask about medically prescribed medications, and patients don’t often say that they’re taking supplements. “My message to my fellow doctors is to ask about these medications,” Konstantatos says.
As for the 67-year-old man, he was informed that the kernels were making him sick, but he decided to continue taking them. “He personally believes that the quality of evidence is sufficient for his purposes,” Konstantatos says, “or maybe he cannot wait for the scientific proof to come through as it may take too long to prevent his cancer from recurring.”
The kernels are believed to treat cancer, but they’re actually poisonous
Can apricot seeds help treat cancer?
An apricot kernel is a single seed found inside the stone of an apricot. Billed as a new “superfood,” some people believe that apricot kernels have cancer-fighting and detox-enhancing properties.
There is currently no research to support the claim that apricot seeds can fight cancer. Furthermore, scientists have warned that a compound in the apricot kernel converts to cyanide in the body at levels that could be harmful.
Is eating apricot kernels a safe alternative way to treat cancer or another dangerous health fad? We sort the facts from the fiction.
Share on Pinterest People buy apricots, apricot kernels, and apricot kernel oil for a range of purposes.
Apricot kernels are similar in appearance to a small almond. Fresh apricot kernels are white. The skin becomes light brown when dried out.
In Egypt, people mix coriander seeds and salt with ground apricot kernel to make a traditional snack, known as “dokka.”
Some manufacturers use apricot kernels in the production of cosmetics, medicine, and oil.
The kernels contain protein, fiber, and a high percentage of oil, which people can extract from the kernel.
People use oil pressed from the sweet kernel can be used for cooking in the same way as they might use sweet almond oil. Processed foods, such as amaretto biscuits, almond finger biscuits, and apricot jams, contain apricot kernels.
Some people who live in the North-West Himalayas think wild apricots and their kernels have both nutritional and medicinal uses. Possible uses include biodiesel production, skin, and hair-care products.
Oil and kernels from the bitter variety of apricot kernel are often ingredients in cosmetics, such as body oil, face cream, lip balm, and essential oil.
In India, people use apricot kernel oil is used to make massage oil, because they believe it relieves aches and pains.
What nutrients do apricot kernels contain?
One study reports that, depending on the type of apricot, the kernels are composed of:
- Oils: From 27.7 to 66.7 percent
- Proteins: Between 14.1 and 45.3 percent, of which 32 to 34 percent are essential amino acids
- Carbohydrates: From 18.1 to 27.9 percent
Around 5 percent of the kernel is fiber.
Apricot kernel oil is high in essential fatty acids. These are necessary for human health, but the human body cannot produce them, so people must take them in through diet.
There are two main types of essential fatty acids: linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).
Linolenic acid plays a vital role in brain function and healthy growth and development. Fatty acids also stimulate skin and hair growth, regulate metabolism, maintain bone health, and support the reproductive system. Many people think that fatty acids have antioxidant properties.
In a rodent study published in 2011, rats with liver fibrosis received a dose of 1.5 milligrams (mg) three times a week for 4 weeks of ground apricot kernels. Researchers found there was an improvement in symptoms.
They suggested this may be due to antioxidant activity, as the kernels contain oleic acid and other polyphenols.
Vitamins and minerals
Apricot kernels do not contain a significant amount of vitamins and minerals, but the oil is rich in vitamin E. According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin E has antioxidant properties.
Apricot kernels may have some health benefits, and some people have suggested that they may help fight cancer.
Scientists have proposed that a compound called amygdalin, present in apricot kernels, may be a way to eradicate tumors and prevent cancer by stopping cells from reproducing.
A laboratory study published in 2005 suggested that amygdalin might inhibit genes that lead to cell proliferation.
In 2012, a laboratory study found that enhancing amygdalin with β-D-glucosidase may make it useful in treating liver cancer.
What is amygdalin?
Amygdalin is a naturally occurring substance found in apricot kernels.
It is also present in the seeds of other fruit, including apples, cherries, plums, and peaches. Clover, sorghum, and lima beans also contain amygdalin.
When someone eats amygdalin, it converts to cyanide in their body. Cyanide is a fast-acting, potentially deadly chemical.
Depending on the dose, consuming cyanide can lead to:
- a headache
- nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps
- mental confusion
- circulatory problems and cardiac arrest
- inability to breath
Cyanide kills cells in the human body by preventing them from using oxygen. Cyanide is particularly harmful to the heart and the brain because they use a lot of oxygen.
Exposure can lead to long-term effects on the heart, brain, and nervous system.
Research suggests that 0.5-3.5 milligrams (mg) of cyanide per kilogram (kg) of body weight can be lethal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that apricot seeds “may have substantial amounts of chemicals which are metabolized to cyanide.”
Estimates state that eating 50 to 60 apricot kernels could deliver a lethal dose of cyanide. Cyanide poisoning can occur at much lower levels, however.
Commercial sources that promote the consumption of raw apricot kernels recommend between 6 and 10 kernels per day. Some recommend more for people with cancer, but this can be dangerous.
People who follow these dose recommendations are likely to be exposed to cyanide levels that cause cyanide poisoning.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have warned that a single serving of three small apricot kernels or one large apricot kernel could put adults over the suggested safe levels of cyanide exposure, while one small kernel could be toxic to an infant.
The EFSA advise that no one should consume more than 20 micrograms (mcg) of cyanide per kilogram of body weight at one time. This limits consumption to one kernel for adults. Even half a kernel would be over the limit for children.
Researchers note that the seeds of bitter apricots have a particularly high level of amygdalin at 5.5 grams (g) in every 100 g.
What is laetrile? What is vitamin B-17?
Laetrile, also called B-17, is a partly synthetic form of amygdalin. It has been proposed as an alternative treatment for cancer.
Laetrile is produced from amygdalin through a chemical reaction with water.
In 1952, the biochemist, Ernst T. Krebs, Jr. developed laetrile in an injectable form. His father had tried apricot seeds as a cancer treatment in 1920, but this proved to be toxic.
Some people with cancer might take laetrile in the hope that it will:
- boost their energy levels
- improve their health and sense of wellbeing
- “detox” and cleanse the body
- prolong life
It is available as:
- a skin lotion
- oral tablets
- a liquid inserted into the rectum.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not approve B-17, or laetrile, for use in the U.S. It is deemed unsafe for food and drug use. It has not been shown to have any use in the treatment of any disease.
Side effects of laetrile are similar to those of cyanide poisoning.
- nausea, vomiting, and headache
- very low blood pressure and blue skin due to low oxygen levels
- liver damage
- droopy upper eyelid
- difficulty walking due to nerve damage
Some sources have promoted the use of laetrile as an anti-cancer agent, and it is available as a treatment in Mexico and some clinics in the U.S.
Some sources suggest that people take laetrile to:
- improve energy levels and well-being
- detox the body
- help them live longer
There is currently no scientific evidence to support the use of laetrile for these purposes or to treat cancer.
What do the health authorities say?
In 2018, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) pointed out that laetrile leads to cyanide production in the body and that the American Institute of Nutrition Vitamins have not approved it as a vitamin.
“ Anecdotal reports and case reports have not shown laetrile to be an effective treatment for cancer.”
They add that there are no reports of any controlled clinical trials that have taken place in people.
Also, they point out that because laetrile comes from Mexico, it may not carry the same safety standards governing purity and contents when manufactured.
There is also concern that people might take laetrile instead of following proven therapy regimes for cancer, such as targeted drugs or radiation therapy. Using unproven methods in place of conventional medicine can cause serious harm.
The NCI add that the FDA “has not approved laetrile as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition.”
What about vitamin B-15?
Also present in apricot kernels is another so-called vitamin, B-15, or calcium pangamate. This, too, has been proposed for treating cancer.
However, as long ago as 1980, scientists concluded that calcium pangamate can cause genetic mutations and has a “90-percent probability” of causing rather than curing cancer.
The FDA considers vitamin B-15 “unsafe for food and drug use.”
No reliable evidence confirms laetrile as an effective treatment for cancer, and there is evidence that it is toxic and potentially fatal.
Most websites that support laetrile as a cancer treatment base their claims on anecdotal evidence and unsupported opinions.
One such article was published in 2008 by Stephen Krashen, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California (emeritas). Krashen argued that “Death by apricot kernels appears to be rare.”
Krashen suggested that people may “accommodate”apricot kernels, “having negative reactions at first but gradually building up to higher doses.”
However, in 2010, researchers published results of a review of 13 children who had experienced cyanide poisoning after eating apricot kernels. All the children attended the same pediatric intensive care unit in Turkey between 2005 and 2009.
The scientists concluded:
“ Cyanide poisoning associated with ingestion of apricot seeds is an important poison in children, many of whom require intensive care.”
In 2015, a review of studies published by the Cochrane Library concluded that there was no reliable evidence to show any benefit from using laetrile or amygdalin in the treatment of cancer.
A rodent study published in 1975 records no antitumor activity after the use of amygdalin, but notes a risk of toxicity.
In 1982, some people who received laetrile as a cancer treatment showed evidence of cyanide toxicity. Also, there were no recorded examples of any improvement in cancer symptoms.
Consumption of apricot kernels and laetrile is not recommended during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. There is a lack of data on the possible risk of congenital disabilities.
In 2006, Cancer Treatment Watch posted an article, originally published in 1977, describing the use of laetrile as “quackery”and criticizing promoters of the supplement for preying on the fears of people with cancer to maintain a lucrative international business.
In conclusion, the ingestion of laetrile and apricot kernels carries a risk of serious illness and death, but manufacturers and producers continue to promote both products widely today.
Processing foods that contain amygdalin reduces the risk but does not eliminate it. Options include crushing, grinding, grating, soaking, fermenting, or drying.
If the manufacturers can remove the harmful elements can be removed, certain chemicals inside apricot kernels may one day prove useful for cancer treatment. For now, however, doctors and other healthcare professionals cannot recomend the use of apricot kernels.
Some people describe this view as “overly cautious.” Is it really dangerous to eat apricot seeds?
Short answer, yes. Apricot seeds are dangerous. Long answer, absolutely yes. The amount that it takes to become dangerous is different for each person. The nutrients available in apricot seeds are easily (and safely) available in other foods. Even if the effect isn’t lethal, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning make you very ill. Choose another snack that doesn’t turn into a deadly poison after you eat it.
Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
Are apricot seeds an alternative treatment for cancer that might work? Or are they a dangerous health risk to humans that may even results in death? We look at the facts behind apricot kernels, including what is in them that might be dangerous. Learn about the theory behind eating apricot kernels and the risks.