It is known for containing amygdalin, a poisonous compound that, together with the related synthetic compound laetrile, has been marketed as an alternative cancer treatment. However, studies have found the compounds to be ineffective in the treatment of cancer, as well as potentially toxic or lethal when taken by mouth, due to cyanide poisoning.
Seeds or kernels of the apricot grown in central Asia and around the Mediterranean are so sweet that they may be substituted for almonds. The Italian liqueur amaretto and amaretti biscotti are flavored with extract of apricot kernels as well as almonds. Oil pressed from these cultivars has been used as cooking oil.
Apricot kernels can sometimes be strong-tasting and bitter. They feature in recipes for apricot jam, and Italian amaretto cookies and liqueur. Taken in excess, they may produce symptoms of cyanide poisoning, including nausea, fever, rash, headaches, insomnia, increased thirst, weakness, lethargy, nervousness, various aches and pains in joints and muscles, and a drop in blood pressure.
In 1993, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets tested the cyanide content of two 220 gram (8 oz) packages of bitter apricot kernels imported from Pakistan that were being sold in health-food stores as a snack. The results showed that each package, if consumed entirely, contained at least double the minimum lethal dosage of cyanide for an adult human. The apricot pits were recalled and removed from stores. There was one reported case in the medical literature of cyanide toxicity from apricot kernels from 1979 to 1998 in the United States. On average, bitter apricot kernels contain about 5% amygdalin and sweet kernels about 0.9% amygdalin. These values correspond to 0.3% and 0.05% of cyanide. Since a typical apricot kernel weighs 600 mg, bitter and sweet varieties contain respectively 1.8 and 0.3 mg of cyanide.
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- Imported Bitter Apricot Pits Recalled as Cyanide Hazard By DENNIS HEVESI Published: Friday, March 26, 1993 – The New York Times
- Suchard JR, Wallace KL, Gerkin RD (December 1998). "Acute cyanide toxicity caused by apricot kernel ingestion". Ann Emerg Med 32 (6): 742–4. doi:10.1016/S0196-0644(98)70077-0. PMID 9832674.
- Fatma Akinci Yildirim and M. Atilla Askin: "Variability of amygdalin content in seeds of sweet and bitter apricot cultivars in Turkey". African Journal of Biotechnology Vol. 9(39), pp. 6522–6524, 27 September 2010; Available online at http://www.academicjournals.org/AJB; DOI: 10.5897/AJB10.884