Q: Can apricot seeds really cure cancer as some people claim?
A: No. This is an example of a dangerous quack medicine that is being touted to desperate patients by misinformed or unscrupulous people. In October 2019, as just one example, a mother-son team in New York was charged with selling a toxic apricot formula as a fake cure for cancer. Hazmat crews removed vats of the concoction stored in their home.
The idea behind this cancer cure takes off from time to time because apricot seeds (inside the fruit’s hard pit, also called kernels) contain the chemical amygdalin, which, in its semi-synthetic form, is called laetrile. Amygdalin can also be found in cherry seeds, almonds, and similar stone fruits (drupes). Amygdalin and laetrile both break down to produce hydrogen cyanide in the body. Proponents claim that this cyanide kills only cancer cells, sparing healthy cells. But cyanide is toxic to all cells.
Another misguided belief is that cancer is the result of a vitamin B17 deficiency and that amygdalin—called vitamin B17 by those promoting the idea—corrects the deficiency and restores the body to health. But there was never any scientific basis for thinking amygdalin could be a vitamin. In fact, its being touted as such was a ploy to prevent the FDA (which classified it as a drug) from prohibiting its sale. Since vitamins (then as now) fell under the category of “supplements,” falsely labeling amygdalin as a vitamin got around that, at least for a while. There is no biochemical basis to state or even theorize that amygdalin is needed for normal metabolism.
The first recorded use of amygdalin as a cancer “treatment” in the U.S. was nearly 100 years ago. But there is simply no convincing evidence to support its use. Though a few lab studies suggested a positive response to amygdalin in human cancer cell lines (including prostate and colon), nearly all results have been negative. For instance, in two studies sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and published in the 1970s, none of the cancers injected into laboratory animals responded to amygdalin.
And the few human trials published have found absolutely no benefits. In one study back in 1982, amygdalin, given both orally and intravenously to 178 cancer patients, did not help stabilize the cancer, improve cancer symptoms, or extend life—but it did cause symptoms of cyanide poisoning; in some patients, blood cyanide levels approached the lethal range. In addition, no studies have had control (placebo comparison) groups. Not surprisingly, we could not find any published clinical trials testing actual apricot seeds in people with cancer.
The FDA has not approved amygdalin, and certainly not apricot seeds, as a cancer treatment. While food patterns can be beneficial to health, single foods are not medicines—and none can cure cancer. Moreover, ingesting more than three little apricot seeds at a time could exceed suggested safe levels for cyanide exposure in adults, according to the European Food Safety Authority; 50 to 60 seeds could be lethal. In fact, there are several reported cases of poisoning from apricot seeds consumed outside of study settings, with at least one death of a child.
Bottom line: We strongly advise against consuming apricot seeds, powders, pills, or extracts sold in stores and online, since it’s too easy to exceed safe doses—and there is no evidence of benefit anyway.