Author: Catherine Solyom, Montreal Gazette
Date: November 22, 2017
Brendan Brogan had just returned from a shopping trip on the Plateau laden with exotic snacks.
On a visit to Montreal from California, he stood in the doorway of his buddy Mike Guetta’s room, munching away on something as they discussed the absurdities of the day.
Then Guetta looked up.
“Those better not be almonds,” he said. “You know I’m allergic to those.”
“No, no,” Brogan replied, “I would never do that. These are apricot pits.”
“What?!? Don’t eat those! They’re poisonous!”
Brogan pooh-poohed the warning, arguing the kernels were organic and he’d bought them at the health food store.
“Look! It’s the superseed of the Hunza people, with Vitamin B17!”
Then he turned the bag over and read the fine print. His face went grey: “Caution: Do not consume more than 2-3 kernels per day. Keep out of the reach of children. Pregnant and nursing women should not consume apricot kernels. Health Canada warns that eating too many apricot kernels can lead to acute cyanide poisoning.”
After a quick call to poison control, Brogan rushed to the nearest emergency room. He had eaten a third of the bag.
Apricot kernels, like cherry pits and apple seeds, contain a product called amygdalin, also known as laetrile and marketed as Vitamin B17.
Bitter apricot kernels — the pits of the pits — are widely available in Montreal health food stores, including at Rachelle-Béry branches across the city, where Brogan bought some. They are gluten-free, pesticide-free, vegan and organic.
They are also potentially lethal, as Brogan found out.
The kernels, like cherry pits and apple seeds, contain a product called amygdalin, also known as laetrile and marketed as Vitamin B17, though it’s more like an anti-vitamin.
When the seeds are chewed and digested, the amygdalin is converted to cyanide in the stomach. Eat too much of them — more than three apricot kernels for an adult and just one kernel for a toddler — and cyanide poisoning can occur.
Cyanide cuts off oxygen supply. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, mental confusion, weakness, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, seizures, coma and, eventually, death.
That’s why Australia, for one, has banned the sale of apricot kernels. But that didn’t stop a Melbourne man from slowly poisoning himself by ingesting 17 mg of homemade apricot kernel extract per day, in the mistaken belief that it would cure his prostate cancer. When doctors performed routine surgery on him in September, they found cyanide levels in his blood that were 25 times the accepted level.
Germany and the United Kingdom have also restricted the sale of apricot kernels, after a number of cases of children hospitalized for cyanide poisoning. In 2011, for example, a 28-month old girl was rushed unconscious to hospital in Turkey. She died in hospital of acute cyanide poisoning 22 days later. She had eaten 10 kernels.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has prohibited the sale of apricot kernels if “intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, for its part, issued a recall and health hazard alert for Our Father’s Farm brand of apricot kernels in 2009, after a reported case of cyanide poisoning.
Since then the agency has received two more complaints of illness.
Packaging must now carry Health Canada’s warning label. But other brands have filled the void left by Our Father’s Farm.
Brogan bought the Organic Traditions brand of the kernel. Manually harvested and imported from Uzbekistan, the kernels are perhaps the “prized superseed” of the Hunza people. It says so right there on the packaging, along with the following claims: “contains vitamin B17” and “used in Ancient Asian medicine for centuries.”
In texts dating back to the 1930s that are rehashed by consumer direct and alternative health websites, the Hunza or Burusho people of the Himalayan region of northern Pakistan are said to live to be 140 and never get sick.
It must be because of the kernels, the story goes.
For example, a Facebook site liked by 997,744 people — titled “The truth about cancer” — says the Hunzas enjoyed near-perfect health.
“Some lived to be over 135 years old and no one in their clan had any of the conditions so common in the modern world, such as diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and cancer.” The website continues in bold lettering, noting that “they ate massive quantities of apricot seed kernels.”
Numerous other websites also claim that apricot kernels can prevent or cure cancer. The kernels are said to treat arthritis, boost your immune system and even serve as an aphrodisiac.
The truth about apricot seeds — and the Hunza people — is less rosy, however. A New York Times reporter who travelled to this Shangri-La in 1996 discovered a beautiful place indeed. But the elderly men who looked to be 140 were probably more like 70.
“The great Hunza secret to old age turned out to be its absence of birth records,” John Tierney wrote.
By modern accounts, Hunza life expectancy is similar to other people in remote mountain regions who go through cycles of food scarcity — 50 to 60 years old.
On the seeds themselves, the science has been conclusive. Numerous studies show that amygdalin does kill cancer cells — and all other cells too.
Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, said the initial idea — generating small amounts of cyanide to kill fast-multiplying cancer cells — was not a bad one. But it just doesn’t work, he said.
The sale of apricot seeds “clearly should not be allowed,” he said, surprised at how readily they are found on store shelves in Montreal.
Schwarcz says Health Canada is overwhelmed and useless at stopping the sale of bogus health remedies.
“With dietary supplements, they tend to say well, it’s not really dangerous, and let them be,” Schwarcz said, vowing to confront Health Canada about the sale of the seeds as a vitamin. “But this one is not in that category. You don’t need a lot of these kernels to do a lot of harm.”
A spokesperson for Health Canada said it is powerless to stop the sale of a product if its distributor does not claim any health benefits. It referred the Montreal Gazette to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The CFIA said it merely enforces Health Canada directives.
Neither agency would comment on why apricot seeds are sold in Canada at all — as vitamins or snacks — given their known toxicity.
Upon arrival at Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, Brogan was given a tall Styrofoam cup of charcoal then placed on a gurney in the hallway to monitor his condition.
No one, from the person who answered the phone at poison control to the triage nurse to the doctor on duty, could believe that apricot seeds were being sold in Montreal.
Eight hours later, Brogan was released from hospital with a $1,125 bill. He had no health insurance, he explained.
“Those seeds were the most expensive snack I’ve ever eaten.”
Guetta went back to Rachelle-Béry to alert them of the danger. The store manager seemed alarmed and immediately took all the remaining packages off the shelves.
But when Guetta returned a few weeks later, there they were again. The superseed of the Hunza people.