Can apple seeds cause cyanide poisoning? A toxicologist digs into the details
If you crack open a peach or apricot pit, you’ll find something that looks like an almond. It’s not an almond. Please don’t eat the impostor almond.
It’s the seed. If you were planning on sampling the seed, know that (in addition to being a choking hazard) it contains a potentially toxic substance. If you’re responsible for kids and feed them a lot of fruit, here’s why you should teach them early on not to eat that fake almond, or some other fruit pits.
Are fruit seeds toxic?
Yes — specifically seeds from apples, apricots, peaches, nectarines, cherries, watermelon, and plums. They contain a molecule called amygdalin. Each amygdalin molecule comprises an a sugar and an organic compound called a nitrile group.
When eaten, amygdalin releases the nitrile group as cyanide. Cyanide is a chemical compound that includes a group of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom with a triple bond. In large enough doses, cyanide is deadly. Even smaller doses can still make one sick. It takes 1 to 2 milligrams of cyanide per kilogram of body weight to be a fatal dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But the conversion of amygdalin to cyanide isn’t one-to-one. If a seed contains 5 grams of amygdalin, it won’t produce 5 grams of cyanide.
Here’s the amount of amygdalin in some pits:
- Apricot: 14 grams amygdalin per kilogram
- Peach: 6.8 g/kg
- Plum: 4 – 17.5 g/kg (depending on variety)
- Apple seeds: 3 g/kg
Can I die by cyanide poisoning from fruit seeds?
Are you planning on drinking a smoothie made of 900 pulverized apple seeds? Because otherwise, no.
“The dose makes the poison,” E. Murl Bailey tells Inverse. Bailey is a veterinary toxicology professor at Texas A&M University. He adds that eating enough could make a child sick, but not an adult.
Furthermore, the amygdalin doesn’t release cyanide unless the seed is crushed up and swallowed. (Again, do not eat the impostor almond.)
What about cherries? Maybe you’re a cherry fiend, and can swallow them whole, pit and all. Fortunately, Bailey says that swallowing a cherry pit whole isn’t dangerous, and it’ll just come out the other end. It’s only an issue if they’re cracked, which you can’t accomplish with your teeth alone. But, if you happen to drop two cherry pits into a mortar and pestle and grind them up, ingesting the byproduct could potentially kill you.
The European Food Safety Commission estimates that eating three small apricot seeds, or even half of a large one, could pose a risk. Make sure that kids from an early age know not to eat it.
You may remember from Rugrats that Chuckie Finster fears swallowing watermelon seeds because a watermelon could grow in his tummy. Let’s just say that Chuckie’s fear is on par with death by cyanide poisoning from fruit seeds.
Can the amygdalin infiltrate the fruit flesh?
No, it stays in the seeds.
If you do come into contact with worrisome amounts of cyanide, call poison control. Cyanide poisoning can cause nausea, fever, headaches, lethargy, nervousness, muscle aches and pains, and falling blood pressure.
Large amounts of cyanide are fast acting and can kill someone, Bailey estimates, within five to 10 minutes.
If you are indeed a cherry fiend, or eat whole apples by the bushel, don’t be scared of eating a seed or two. Just as long as you’re not popping them like Tic-Tacs.
CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
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