Apricot kernels are poisonous: true or false?

To most people the ominous warning that apricot kernels can kill you probably seems superfluous — after all, the kernel of an apricot is protected by that hard stone. That doesn’t stop some people, though, who should watch out, because there is more than a kernel of truth to this rumour.

There’s a certain kind of person who just can’t leave well enough alone — who delights in eating fish roe and sucking the marrow out of bones. But nature has laid a booby trap for these people inside the apricot stone, for the soft kernel is not a wholesome morsel but a cyanide laced pellet of doom.

It’s not strictly true that apricot kernels contain cyanide. They do however contain amygdalin which, when digested, breaks down into glucose, almond essence (yes, seriously) and hydrogen cyanide. I hardly need tell you that cyanide is a potent killer. It works by disrupting the use of oxygen in cellular energy production, effectively starving the body of oxygen even though the blood is full of it. We use it to kill vermin, the Nazis used it to kill millions in their death camps and mystery novelists use it all the time to kill off their hapless victims. It has quite the reputation.

Amygdalin and similar compounds are found in lots of foods, so we tend get some cyanide from food as a matter of course. Generally we can deal with these small amounts without any drama. Even a couple of apricot kernels swallowed whole probably won’t do a typical adult harm.

But wait, there’s more! Apricot kernels also contain a substance called emulsin which speeds up the conversion of amygdalin into cyanide making more cyanide available in a short time. The two are in different parts of the kernel so this usually only happens if the kernel is chewed or ground up, but when they do mix the consequences can be fatal.

Apricot kernels really are very poisonous. Only a handful of them can kill a healthy person in short order. It happens. Just don’t let it happen to you.

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