They’re pretty, they’re juicy, they’re sweet, and they’re fragrant. What’s not to love about apricots?
Like peaches, their relatives in the Prunus genus, the eye-catching orange-yellow color of apricots provides a clue as to their nutrient content. Apricots are a good source of beta-carotene, as well as vitamin C and potassium, with small amounts of copper, manganese, and vitamins E and K. (Apricots’ bright color is also courtesy of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health.) They’re a sweet fruit, but along the spectrum of carbohydrate foods, apricots are a far cry from donuts and sugary breakfast cereals. One apricot (35g) contains just 4 grams of carbohydrate, with 1 gram of fiber, for a total of 3 grams of net carbohydrate—not bad for when someone wants a little something sweet and refreshing as a snack. This is for raw, fresh apricots, however. Dried fruits are a different story, with their sugar being much more concentrated. (An ounce of dried apricots—about the same weight as one fresh apricot with the seed removed—racks up 18 grams of carbohydrate, with 2 grams of fiber. Not terrible, but a much bigger sugar hit than fresh fruit.) Dried apricots make a great ingredient in a nut and dried fruit trail mix for when people are out hiking or otherwise exerting themselves, but sedentary folks and those with suboptimal blood sugar control should steer clear.
Also like peaches—and plums, olives, and cherries—apricots are stone fruits, or drupes, whose layers consist of the thin outer skin (exocarp), the juicy flesh (mesocarp), and the portion that surrounds the kernel (endocarp). There’s a bit of controversy surrounding use of the kernel, itself. Apricot kernel oil is a common sight in the cosmetics section of natural food stores, as it is used as a moisturizer, massage oil, and a carrier oil for concentrated essential oils that need to be diluted. It’s a reasonable way to use what might otherwise be a waste product from producing apricot nectar and dried apricots.
Technically, apricot kernels are edible, but this is not recommended. There are bitter apricot kernels and sweet apricot kernels. Both contain amygdalin, with the bitter kernels having about 5% amygdalin and sweet kernels about 0.9%. These correspond to 0.3% and 0.05% of cyanide, respectively, for about 1.8 and 0.3 mg of cyanide, respectively, per 600mg apricot kernel. There have been reports, although rare, of acute cyanide toxicity from ingesting apricot kernels. Compounds in apricot kernels, such as amygdalin, have garnered attention in complementary and alternative medicine for their potential in fighting cancer. A compound called laetrile is often confounded with amygdalin, and though their names are (erroneously) used interchangeably, they are pharmacologically distinct compounds. According to an article reporting a case of elevated liver enzymes in a (presumably unsupervised) cancer patient who had taken 70 apricot kernels daily for 45 days, “Amygdalin is a cyanogenetic glycoside compound found in the pits of many fruits and can be applied, e.g. via ingestion of apricot kernels. Laetrile is an acronym from laevorotatory and mandelonitrile, used to describe a purified form of amygdalin. Briefly, the working mechanism of amygdalin has been proposed to rely on the specific vulnerability of malignant cells to cyanogenic glycosides because of 1) a higher level of beta-glucosidases and beta-glucuronidase as compared with normal cells, leading to a more rapid intracellular release of cyanide from amygdalin and 2) a deficiency in rhodanese, an enzyme that converts cyanide into the harmless compound thiocyanate. There is circumstantial evidence that amygdalin is a potential anti-cancer drug, mostly based on in vitro experimental studies, although no clinical evidence supporting these findings has emerged over the past decades. Moreover, it was even associated with toxic blood cyanide levels and reduced overall survival when used in the form of laetrile as described.”
So it may be that there is a role for amygdalin in specific patients with certain types of cancer, but obviously, patients should never take it upon themselves to experiment unsupervised with unproven and potentially harmful treatments. According to other researchers, “The claims that laetrile or amygdalin have beneficial effects for cancer patients are not currently supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.”
Kernel controversy aside, there’s nothing problematic with eating the fruit, which is a good thing, because apricots work in sweet and savory dishes alike, such as apricot bars, and apricot and basil pesto chicken. The fruit is believed to be native to Armenia, and the major producing countries are still in that region: Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, with smaller amounts produced in Spain, Italy, and France. Apricots remain popular in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cooking, as in this apricot chicken tajine. Definitely not just for snacking or trail mix anymore!
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For more information related to this topic, please listen to the following Nutrient Roundtable discussion: