The apricot tree (Prunus armeniaca L.) originated on the border of Russia and China and has been cultivated in China for at least 3,000 years, according to the University of Georgia. English settlers probably introduced the fruit to the U.S. East Coast while Spanish explorers introduced it to monasteries in California. The apricot seed is often called a kernel. It has a very hard shell surrounding a nut that resembles an almond.
The two different types of apricot seeds are sweet and bitter. Health Canada says you can identify the bitter ones by their pale white colour and the fact they taste bitter. The bitter seeds pose health threats because they have amygdalin (laetrile), sometimes also called vitamin B17, that releases cyanide when ingested. The sweet seeds contain lower levels of amygdalin and do not pose health threats. The United States Food and Drug Administration lists apricot kernels in its Poisonous Plant Database and makes no distinction between bitter and sweet seeds.
A vibrant debate still rages about the benefits of the active ingredient in apricot seeds, laetrile. Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine, an acupuncture clinic in London, lists apricot seeds as beneficial for relieving coughs and breathing difficulties, and for lubricating and relaxing the bowels. Clinical findings in China also report the bitter apricot seeds are antimicrobial, anti-tumour, and provide pain relief for those with advanced liver cancer. The U.S. National Cancer Institute says there is little evidence to support any cancer-killing ability for laetrile while citing two studies that demonstrated potential but inconclusive evidence the substance could boost the immune system and inhibit the growth of primary tumours. The FDA has not approved laetrile as a cancer treatment in the United States.
Dried apricot seeds are cold-pressed to extract an oil that is readily absorbed by the skin. It also has skin softening properties. Apricot oil is high in vitamins A, C and E which are beneficial for dry, irritated or mature skin. The oil is a moisturiser and is also good for elasticity and suppleness. It has a light nutty odour and is used in many creams, lotions and cosmetics. Apricot seed oil is a popular carrier oil used in massage therapy because it doesn't leave an oily residue like many other oils. The vitamin E in the oil is an antioxidant that neutralises free radicals. Free radicals cause tissue and cellular damage. Vitamin E helps wounds to heal and is beneficial to the circulatory system. The kernels can be crushed and made into a facial mask or put into facial scrubs that help improve circulation and remove dead skin cells.
Apricot seeds are sometimes called for in recipes and both the sweet and bitter varieties are used in confections, baking and liqueurs. They are sometimes substituted for almonds because they are so similar in flavour.
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- University of Georgia: Apricot
- Health Canada: Cyanide in Bitter Apricot Kernels
- Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine: Chinese Herbal Medicines A-Z - Xing Ren
- "The healing power of Chinese herbs and medicinal recipes"; Joseph P. Hou, Youyu Jin; 2005
- National Cancer Institute: Laetrile/Amygdalin: Laboratory/Animal/Preclinical Studies: First and Second Studies Sections