Cyanide in Bitter Apricot Kernels

What is the Issue?

Apricot kernels are the seeds found inside the pits (stones) of fresh apricots. There are two types of apricot kernels, bitter and sweet. Bitter apricot kernels naturally contain a compound called amygdalin, which has the potential to release cyanide when ingested by humans. Small amounts of cyanide are detoxified by the human body but high doses can be lethal. Alternatively, sweet apricot kernels and the fruit (flesh) of apricots do not pose a risk of adverse health effects from cyanide exposure because they contain lower levels of amygdalin.

Some people use ground or whole bitter apricot kernels to flavour foods, as a health food, or for medicinal purposes. Health Canada has not approved any medicinal or natural health uses of bitter apricot kernels, therefore it is illegal for companies to make any medicinal claim to treat, cure, or prevent a medical condition, such as cancer, on their packaging.

Despite this fact, apricot kernels may be promoted in some health foods as a medicinal ingredient. Apricot kernels with unapproved medicinal claims may be offered for sale in Canada. These products may recommend very high quantities of apricot kernels be consumed, which would result in exposure to amygdalin doses higher than those considered to be safe by Health Canada and other international jurisdictions. This practice has resulted in at least one Canadian consumer having serious adverse reactions requiring hospitalization.

What does Health Canada Recommend?

It is the opinion of Health Canada that apricot kernels should not be consumed for medicinal or natural health purposes. There is a concern about the potential health effects associated with large numbers of bitter apricot kernels being consumed on a regular basis, particularly by young children. Health Canada advises adults of the general population who do eat bitter apricot kernels as flavouring to consume no more than three bitter apricot kernels per day, ground and mixed with other foods.

Identifying Bitter Apricot Kernels

Bitter apricot kernels are available at some health food stores, and Asian grocery stores, and are sold on the internet. Either the entire pit or just the inside kernel can be found for sale commercially. Apricot pits resemble those of plums. When hulled, bitter apricot kernels are usually pale white in colour, resemble a small almond, and are bitter in taste.

Bitter apricot kernels may be incorrectly labelled as almonds, almond seeds, dried almonds, amandes seche or séchées, or other variations of these words. Such mis-labelling may stem from the fact that bitter apricot kernels resemble small bitter almonds in taste and appearance. Incorrect labelling also stems from language differences; the French word for "kernel" or "pit" is "amande". In Chinese, the words for "apricot pit" and "almond" can be used interchangeably. In both French and Chinese the translations of the word "almond" also refer to shape. It may be difficult to differentiate between bitter and sweet apricot kernels by their appearance.

Bitter kernels may be labelled as "north" almonds and sweet kernels as "south" almonds. If in doubt, inquire at the point of purchase if the apricot kernels are bitter or sweet.

For More Information

Natural Toxins in Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
(Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada,
represented by the Minister of Health, 2009
Cat. : H164-111/1-2009E-PDF
ISBN : 978-1-100-13039-2

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