FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) will launch a study on the risk of cyanide in raw apricot kernels.
The government agency will call for submissions on the topic from scientists in early 2014 after revised guidelines on claims the kernels are poisonous.
In a statement on the FSANZ website it said “new information” had prompted changes to earlier guidance. It “now advises it is unsafe for adults to eat more than three raw apricot kernels (with skin on) per day. Children should not eat any.”
Death in minutes
Apricot kernels are found inside the stone of fresh apricots, and look like almonds. They can contain cyanide (hydrocyanic acid), a poison which at higher doses has killed humans within minutes.
However apricot kernels are widely sold, and touted by some alternative health practitioners as a natural treatment for cancer.
In 2011, Australian newspaper The Age reported a Queensland resident was allegedly hospitalised with high levels of hydrocyanic acid, also known as prussic acid or amygdalin.
Also in 2011, Steve McCutcheon, CEO, FSANZ, warned consumers against eating raw apricot kernels. Australian retailer ChiTree Apricot Kernels was reportedly forced to recall its kernels, which were discovered to have very high levels of amygdalin, but now labels them “for the preparation of body scrubs and oils” and warns against consumption.
An average fatal dose of cyanide is around 1.52 mg/kg of body weight.
A 2010 Turkish study showed bitter almond kernels contain roughly 1.8mg of cyanide, and sweet varieties have 0.3 mg.
The most dangerous kind of apricot kernels are those with the skin still on. Those without skin contain lower levels of cyanide. Apple seeds, cherry pits, and wild bitter almonds also contain hydrocyanic acid.
Biscuits, jams and salt
Many processed foods are derived from apricot kernels, such as amaretto biscuits, almond finger biscuits and apricot jams. However FSANZ said these do not pose a risk because processing or cooking these foods reduces cyanide to safe levels.
Cyanide has its uses in food processing. Ferrocyanides, a group of iron and cyanide compounds, are used safely as an anticaking agent in table salt, because the iron and cyanide are tightly bound, meaning the chemical cannot decompose to lethal levels in the human body.