Health Canada is reminding Canadians of the potential risk of cyanide poisoning that comes from eating bitter apricot kernels.
Apricot kernels are the seeds found inside the pits of apricots and they come in two types: bitter and sweet. Consumption of the former type is particularly risky due to their increased levels of amygdalin (also known as laetrile or vitamin B17), a compound which has the potential to release highly poisonous cyanide when ingested.
Bitter apricot kernels are often used for food flavouring, supplementation or medicinal purposes (such as for cancer treatments), but Health Canada has not approved it for any of those functions. In fact, it is currently illegal for companies to make any medicinal claim on their packaging, though many unapproved bitter apricot kernel products on the market are still being promoted as health foods.
Health Canada has become aware that some Canadians may be consuming whole bitter apricot kernels as snacks. This puts them at risk for cyanide poisoning because they are ingesting lethal quantities of amygdalin. The Department is currently reassessing how these products are being sold and is looking to take appropriate action to protect Canadians further.
At least one Canadian has experienced the severe effects of cyanide poisoning from excessive intake of bitter apricot kernels. These include weakness, confusion, anxiety, restlessness, headache, nausea, difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. At high enough quantities, cyanide poisoning can also lead to death, as the human body only has the capability to detoxify small amounts of cyanide.
Sweet apricots also contain traces of amygdalin in both their kernels and flesh, but in such low quantities that they do not pose a health hazard from cyanide exposure.