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Apricots and Apricot Kernels - Health Benefits and Dangers

Updated on February 4, 2016
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

An apricot tree with fruit
An apricot tree with fruit | Source

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.

Apricot fruits and leaves
Apricot fruits and leaves | Source

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.

Pluots (plum and apricot hybrids)
Pluots (plum and apricot hybrids) | Source

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?

Canned Fruit

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 apricots
Dried apricots | Source

Dried Fruit

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!

Apricots drying in the sun in Cappadocia, Turkey
Apricots drying in the sun in Cappadocia, Turkey | Source

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.

Beautiful fruits that are also delicious
Beautiful fruits that are also delicious | Source

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.


Facts about cyanide in bitter apricot kernels from Health Canada

Apricot seed warning from the BBC

Laetrile information from the National Cancer Institute

Facts about laetrile from Cancer Research UK

© 2012 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, RTalloni. I can understand why you love apricots - they do have a lovely taste!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Very interesting read packed with helpful information on apricots. We love this little fruit and it's good to learn more about them.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and the votes, Peggy! It's nice to find fresh apricots in the stores in summer, but I enjoy eating other forms of the fruit too. I think that sweet apricots are delicious when they're eaten on their own or when they're added to many types of food.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I did not even know that there was such a thing as bitter apricots. I love the fruit of the sweet ones when they are fresh and in the stores. Canned and dried apricots are also good. I had no idea that people ate the kernals or that they were used for various purposes. Good advice in this hub Alicia. Up votes!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, teaches. It is easy to eat too many dried apricots, since they are so delicious! I have to be very careful when I'm eating them.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Now I want some apricots! I buy the dried variety for snack purposes and will have to watch the intake, forgot they do add up in calories. Thanks for the lovely reminder of how good they really are.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. I feel the same way. I don't avoid eating food that contains the ground seeds of the sweet apricot, but I don't eat the seeds when I eat the fruit. Thanks for the visit and comment.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      It's interesting, Alicia, how a fruit as sweet as apricots can have such a tremendously bitter seed. Thanks for this revealing information about the benefits of apricots. I avoid eating the seed though since cyanide in any quantity is not my cup of tea.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Tom. As always, I appreciate your visit, comment and votes very much!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend this is all great and interesting information on apricots and some of it i did not know before, well done !

      Vote up and more !!!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Maren. Yes, I love eating the fruit of the apricot, but I don't eat the seeds. I want to absorb as few toxins as possible!

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I love eating apricots - sounds like it and the apple seed are equally dangerous to us humans, though.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, the rating and the tweet, Om! I appreciate them all.

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

      Lots of fascinating info here! I had never heard about the uses of apricot kernels before. Thanks for sharing this. Rated up and tweeted!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and the information, alipuckett. I've never eaten bitter apricot kernels, but their name doesn't sound very attractive!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Bill. Apricots are worth trying. I enjoy eating all forms of the fruit, but my favorite is the dry fruit - I love its flavor!

    • alipuckett profile image

      alipuckett 5 years ago

      I read the reports about apricot seeds being beneficial for killing cancer cells. I picked up bag of kernels a few years ago. They tasted awful!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I don't eat what do I do? :)

      Interesting hub; I just might try them all because of your wonderful and informative hub.