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Can apricot kernels help prevent cancer?

by Doris Penner

Apricots are an orchard fruit used for making pies, jams and sauces when in season, but what many Canadians don't know is that the hard pit in the centre of the fleshy fruit hides a kernel that is used for food in some parts of the world. Apricot farmers in the Himalaya regions, for example, are believed to consume kernels as part of a regular diet while Europeans use their faint almond flavour to enhance the taste of jams, candy and custards. Sometimes the kernels are crushed as bakers do in Italy to make their famous amaretto cookies, or alternatively, the oil is extracted for flavouring purposes.

What many Canadian have heard about, however, is laetrile, a substance used in a controversial cancer treatment in Asian and some Latin American countries, as well as in Russia. Laetrile is a chemical modification of amygdalin—sometimes called vitamin B17—which is found in high concentrations in the apricot kernel. While amygdalin is also present in the seed pits of peaches and in the tiny seeds of grapes, blueberries and strawberries as well as in some types of nuts, apricot kernels remain the best source.

In the vitamin category

Although technically not a vitamin, amygdalin is placed in the vitamin category because it appears to possess properties that reduce pain associated with arthritis, and  lower blood pressure. However, its main claim to fame revolves around its purported cancer-fighting and cancer-prevention capabilities.

The theory behind how laetrile works is that when the laetrile molecule—a compound—comes across a cancer cell, it is broken down into two molecules—one is hydrogen cyanide and the other benzaldehyde. The latter molecule reacts with the enzymes of cancer cells and kills it. While it was originally assumed it was the hydrogen cyanide molecule that did away with cancer cells, it is now known to be benzaldehyde. In cancer therapy using laetrile, a healthy diet including a wide range of nutrients, especially vitamins C, B12, A and E as well as the minerals zinc, magnesium and selenium is stressed, in order to boost the effectiveness of laetrile, as well as build up the immune system.

Since laetrile made its appearance in North America, there has been much debate over its effectiveness as a cancer treatment, and indeed, whether it might, in fact, be toxic. As such, it is not approved for sale nor is it used by oncologists for cancer treatment.

However, since apricot kernels have been used for hundreds of years in Chinese medicine for various ailments including indigestion, arthritis, high blood pressure and respiratory conditions, and in Russia since 1845 as a cancer treatment, some people believe the kernels have medicinal value, and ingesting them daily or occasionally can only do them good. They can be found in health food stores where they are sold as supplements.

Concentrated in the bitter seeds

While apricot kernels have some trace vitamins and minerals, most people ingest them for the amygdalin content which is found in largest concentrations in so-called bitter seeds, in contrast to the “sweet seeds” which are the variety used as a substitute for almonds. To lessen the bitter flavour, it is suggested you soak them in water to make them edible—but be aware this also lowers the level of amygdalin. Apricot kernels may be eaten out of hand as is, or ground and added to cereals, soups or curries.

The next question naturally is, in order to gain any of the cancer-fighting benefits, how many kernels should one ingest? This is where the cons of eating the kernels must be addressed. First, you should be aware that the practice of eating a large number of apricot kernels daily as a means of fighting cancer is largely based on anecdotal evidence. Secondly, the kernels contain a small amount of the toxin cyanide as indicated above, which is not a problem in low dosages, but can produce symptoms of nausea, fever, headaches, insomnia and lethargy, with more serious risks of a drop in blood pressure as well as neuropathies or nerve damage if taken in excess. Exactly what that level is differs for each individual; however, nutritionists recommend you ingest no more than five to 10 seeds a day.

inshell apricot kernels, 250g and 500g packs