Apricots and Apricot Kernels - Health Benefits and Dangers
Apricot Fruits and Seeds
Apricots are sweet, delicious and nutritious fruits. They are rich in important vitamins and minerals and are a good source of fiber. The fresh fruits are a wonderful summer treat. Canned and dried apricots are available all year round and are useful when fresh fruit isn't available. Apricots are high in sugar, though, so they shouldn’t be eaten in excess.
The flesh of apricots is a great addition to the diet, but the pit (or stone) inside the fruit may be dangerous. The pit contains the seed or kernel. This kernel contains a chemical called amygdalin, which our body converts into toxic cyanide. The body can neutralize small quantities of cyanide. However, the kernel of the bitter apricot is high in amygdalin and produces a much larger amount of cyanide than the kernel of the sweet apricot. Bitter apricot kernels must be strictly limited in the diet.
The scientific name of both the sweet apricot tree and the bitter apricot tree is Prunus armeniaca. The two types of apricot are different varieties of the same species.
Nutritional Content and Health Benefits
When apricots are ripe they are bright orange and slightly soft. As in other fruits and vegetables, the orange color 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 protects cells by acting as an antioxidant. The fruit also contain B vitamins. There are eight vitamins in the B complex family. Each vitamin 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.
Apricots contain useful amounts of certain minerals, including potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium and iron. They are also a good source of soluble fiber. This type of fiber forms a gel when it mixes with water in the gastrointestinal tract. The gel lowers 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 believed to play a role in aging and in the development of some diseases, including cancer and heart disease. 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.
Grilled Apriums (Apricot-Plum Hybrids) with Mascarpone
Uses of Apricots
Fresh apricots are delicious when eaten on their own and when mixed with either sweet or savory foods. They're used in cakes, pies, cookies, ice cream, salads and meat stews. They're also added to grains and chicken. In addition, apricots are used to make jams, fruit drinks and liqueurs. Fresh apricots are sometimes grilled, roasted or baked before being served.
Interesting hybrids of apricots and plums have been created. These can be used instead of apricots in recipes. Apriums and pluots are both apricot-plum hybrids. Apriums have more apricot characteristics while pluots have more plum characteristics.
When are Apricots Ripe?
Fresh apricots are only available in summer where I live. Luckily, I can still benefit from some of the apricot's nutrients by eating canned or dried fruit. I look for apricots canned in fruit juice instead of syrup and dried apricots that are dark in color instead of bright orange.
Canned apricot halves with the liquid drained make a nice dessert. I like to add apricots 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 canned apricots to my breakfast cereal, or I reverse the proportions and add cereal as a topping for the apricots.
Dried fruits are tasty right out of the packet. They can also be rehydrated in water on their own, in stewed fruit desserts, in baked goods and in oatmeal. Apricots darken naturally as they dry. Dried apricots that are bright orange have had sulfur dioxide added to them in order to preserve their color. They may also contain sulfites, which cause an allergic reaction in some people.
Dried apricots are certainly delicious. They have a distinctive flavor instead of being simply sweet. As with all dried fruit it's easy to eat too many at one serving, though. Because the fruits have lost water and decreased in volume it doesn't look like we are eating very much when we eat a handful of dried fruit. If we think about how many of the fruits we are actually consuming, it may be a shock!
Uses of Apricot Kernels
Apricots can be classified as sweet (the type we buy in grocery stores) or bitter. The ground pits of the fruits are used to make exfoliating scrubs for skin. The kernels inside the pits look similar to almonds. Both sweet and bitter apricot kernels are ground and added to food for flavor. An oil is extracted from them for food or cosmetic use. Sweet apricot kernels are sometimes used instead of almonds in marzipan.
Bitter apricot kernels can be bought in some health food or Asian food stores. However, it's very important to restrict the amount of bitter apricot kernel that's eaten, if it's eaten at all, because its ingestion produces a toxin.
How to Remove Apricot Pits
Bitter Apricot Kernels and Cyanide Poisoning
Sweet apricot kernels contain some amygdalin, but bitter apricot kernels contain a much higher level of the chemical. In our digestive tract an enzyme converts amygdalin to hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous. The enzyme is present in some foods as well. 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 kernels a day. They also say that the kernels should be ground and mixed with other food instead of being eaten on their own. According to a BBC article, the Food Standards Agency in Britain recommends that no more than two bitter apricot kernels be eaten per day.
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.
Bitter Apricot 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. They claim that the cyanide or benazldehyde that are made in the body when we ingest amygdalin kill cancer cells. They often recommend the ingestion of a very large number of bitter apricot kernels in a day. This huge intake of amygdalin produces a large amount of cyanide in the gastrointestinal tract, which is dangerous.
Laetrile is a chemical derived from amygdalin. It's sometimes referred to as vitamin B17, although it's not a vitamin. Some natural health proponents claim that laetrile is helpful for cancer, while health agencies say that it's not only ineffective but also dangerous. Scientists say that there is no reliable evidence that substances within or derived from bitter apricot kernels can help cancer, even when the chemicals are injected instead of eaten.
Delicious Fruit All Year Long
Although care is needed when using the kernels, apricots are useful and tasty fruits to add to foods. The flesh of fresh sweet apricots is delicious in summer. At other times of the year, canned and dried fruits are good substitutes for the fresh ones. Apricots are small fruits that are packed with a large amount of nutrition and flavor.
© 2012 Linda Crampton