OTTAWA – Health Canada is reminding Canadians to limit their consumption of bitter apricot kernels because of the risk of cyanide poisoning.
Bitter apricot kernels contain amygdalin (also known as laetrile, and marketed as Vitamin B17) which is a natural substance that contributes to the bitter taste but can release cyanide after being eaten.
The human body can eliminate small amounts of cyanide, but larger amounts can pose a significant risk to health. Eating more than a few bitter apricot kernels can introduce an unsafe level of cyanide in the body resulting in cyanide poisoning, which could lead to death. Symptoms of cyanide poisoning include weakness and confusion, anxiety, restlessness, headache, nausea, difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, seizures, and cardiac arrest. Health Canada advises those who choose to consume bitter apricot kernels to limit their consumption to no more than three kernels per day for adults, ground and mixed with other foods. Bitter apricot kernels should not be eaten by children.
Apricot kernels are seeds that are found in the pit (stones) of the apricot fruit. Two kinds of kernels are found in apricots: sweet and bitter. Sweet kernels and the flesh of apricots do not pose a health risk to Canadians.
Packages of bitter whole apricot kernels can be found in health food stores and some 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 can be used to flavour foods. However, they may also be promoted in some health foods as a medicinal ingredient to treat diseases, such as cancer.
No health products containing amygdalin (or laetrile or B17) have been authorized by Health Canada to treat cancer or any other condition. Health Canada does not permit cancer treatment claims for natural health products. The use of unauthorized medicinal or natural health products containing this ingredient may result in cyanide poisoning, which could cause death.
Recently, Health Canada has become aware that some people may be consuming whole bitter apricot kernels as snacks, in quantities that may put them at risk for acute cyanide poisoning. Given this information, Health Canada is assessing how these products are being sold. If additional measures are required to adequately protect Canadians, the Department will not hesitate to take action.
Consumers who are concerned about symptoms possibly associated with the use of products containing bitter apricot kernels should consult their health care practitioner.