Apricot alomonds are the small kernel enclosed within the wood–like pit at the center of the apricot fruit. The apricot tree carries the botanical name Prunus armeniaca. It is a drupe, meaning stone–fruit, and a close relative of the peach. Both are very similar in appearance and qualities. The apricot is also sometimes called apricot or Armeniaca vulgaris. Like the plum, both peaches and apricots are distantly related to the rose and are classified as members of the Rosacaeae family.
Apricots grow on small to medium size trees, which are hardy in most temperate areas. White, multi–petaled blossoms with a slight reddish tinge nearer to the base of the flower emerge onto the bare branches in early spring, before the tree’s heart–shaped leaves appear. By late July or early August, the apricot fruit ripens. There are more than 20 varieties of apricot known to botanists.
The name Prunus armeniaca is actually a misnomer based upon the long–held belief that apricots initially came from Armenia. It is now known that in reality they originated in the Far East, most likely in the Himalayas and Northern China. It is speculated that the apricot had already migrated to the Middle East before the Old Testament and that the apples described in the Garden of Eden in Genesis were actually apricots. During the reign
of King Henry VIII in the 1500s, apricots were brought to England from Italy. Though smaller than the peach, apricots have the same russet–tinted, golden, velvet appearing exterior and deeper golden–orange flesh inside. The innermost layers form the large, woody compressed stone, or pit, that contains at its very center, the kernel, or seed. When pressed, nearly half of this kernel gives forth an oil very chemically similar to the oil found in sweet almond and peach kernels. This oil contains olein, glyceride of linoleic acid, and a transparent, crystalline chemical compound, amygdalin, or laetrile. This compound is also known as vitamin B17. The oil is chemically indistinguishable from oil of bitter almond. Although the oil from apricot seeds usually breaks down into a toxic substance capable of causing death within the human body, there are also varieties of apricot seed that are reported to be edible.
Because the oil from the apricot seed is far less expensive than oil of almond, confectioners use it in place of bitter almond oil for flavoring sweets and as a culinary seasoning. Apricot oil is also used extensively in the manufacture of cosmetics, often being fraudulently added to almond oil. It has skin softening properties and is often used in making soaps, hand creams, cold cream, and perfume preparations. Chinese Medicine practitioners use apricot seed as a treatment in respiratory diseases, including bronchitis and emphysema. It is believed to act as an cough suppressant and expectorant and, because of the oil, also used as a laxative.
There has been considerable controversy regarding apricot seed, and specifically amygdalin, one of its components. Since the 1920, in many countries around the globe it has been recognized as a possible cancer preventative and malignant cell growth inhibitor. In San Francisco biochemist Ernst Krebs’s article The Nitrilosides (Vitamin B17)–Their Nature, Occurrence and Metabolic Significance (Antineoplastic Vitamin B17), theorized that amygdalin, with diet and vitamins, could inhibit cancerous growths. In the years since, it has been used in many countries as a cancer treatment, thought to be especially beneficial in the treatment of smoking–related tumors such as lung cancer. Several studies done in the United States throughout the 1970s and early 1980s demonstrated that amygdalin did not kill cancer cells. Review of patients’ records where there had been reported cures or remarkable size reduction in tumors did not provide credible evidence of amygdalin ability to treat cancer effectively. There has been significant documentation that amygdalin breaks down into cyanide, a potent poison, in the human body, and when taken in sufficiently high doses, can actually bring on death due to its toxicity.
Apricot seed is not sold in American health food stores due to its classification as an unapproved drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, it is available in other countries, including Mexico, and in Chinese pharmacies and Asian markets. It is sold both as the whole kernel or seed, or in decoctions including cough syrups. Chinese practitioners usually combine apricot seed with other herbs, including white mulberry leaf or ophiopogon, a tuber grown in Asia.A paste made of apricot seed and sugar has been shown, in some Chinese medical trials, to relieve chronic bronchitis.
As noted previously, the amygdalin in apricot seed breaks down within the body into a form of the deadly poison cyanide, or prussic acid. There has been considerable debate concerning its level of toxicity to human beings. Following an Oklahoma judicial decision legalizing the importation of amygdalin in 1986, clinical trials were begun by the FDA and National Cancer Institute in 1987. Amygdalin was used, along with the diet, enzymes, and vitamins suggested by pro– amygdalin factions. The report from this study concludes: ‘‘No substantive benefit was observed in terms of cure, improvement, or stabilization of the cancer.’’ They further reported that ‘‘the hazards of amygdalin therapy were evidenced in several patients by symptoms of cyanide toxicity or by blood cyanide levels approaching lethal range. Amygdalin is a toxic drug that is not effective as a cancer treatment.’’ It has been reported that ten apricot seeds can kill a child.
Chinese practitioners caution using apricot seed if the person being treated suffers from diarrhea. Headache and nausea have been reported following ingestion of small amounts. The most serious side effect of apricot seed is potential cyanide poisoning. When large doses of cyanide are ingested, death is almost instantaneous. Toxicity from smaller doses is manifested by vomiting, diarrhea, mental confusion, vertigo, headache, extreme dyspnea, and violent respirations, slow pulse, weakness, glassy or protruding eyes, dilated pupils, and a characteristic (peach blossoms, bitter almond) odor to the breath.