Apricots are a popular healthy fruit that contains seeds, or 'kernels,' which are edible and contain several beneficial compounds such as vitamins, fiber and healthy fats. The kernels are available in health food stores and can be a healthy part of a well-balanced diet. However, certain precautions should be considered before regular consumption.
Apricots are a type of fruit related to plums that are commonly cultivated in Mediterranean countries. Inside the fruit is a single large seed that is enclosed in a hard shell. Although most often eaten for the flesh of the fruit, few might realize that the seeds are edible. The seeds, or "kernels," are a good source of dietary fiber and protein. In addition, they have no cholesterol and are a rich source of vitamin E and heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
Apricot kernels are promoted as a health food and are easily obtainable in stores and mail-order websites. The flavor of apricot kernels can range from slightly sweet to very bitter. The sweeter variety is similar in taste and texture to almonds and can sometimes be used as a substitute in recipes. Amaretto, a type of almond-flavored liqueur, is sometimes made with apricot kernel extract. In addition, oil from the kernels can be extracted and used for cooking.
Even though apricot kernels have healthful benefits, they are high in the compound amygdalin, which is a potentially toxic cyanide-containing molecule. Side effects of toxicity of this compound include headache, nausea, fatigue and lethargy. The molecule was for many years believed to have anti-cancer properties, but recent studies have disputed these claims. A clinical trial was published in the "New England Journal of Medicine" finding that amygdalin was potentially toxic and not suited for cancer treatment.
Even though apricot kernels are potentially toxic, poisoning due to amygdalin is relatively rare. A study in the "Annals of Emergency Medicine" published the effects of poisoning and described them as similar to cyanide toxicity. However, the amount of apricot kernels that would need to be consumed to result in these symptoms is very high. Eating a single serving of apricot kernels from a reputable source no more than once a day is extremely safe in healthy adults, and the health benefits outweigh the potential risks.