October 2021

Which Natural Medicines Contain Cyanide?

A number of natural medicines contain chemicals that are converted to cyanide in the body. In some cases, consuming large amounts of certain plant parts is safe, but small amounts of other plant parts can be poisonous. Here are a few to watch out for.

Apricot kernel is the seed found inside the pit of the apricot fruit. It contains variable doses of a chemical called amygdalin, which is converted into cyanide in the stomach. To minimize the risk of cyanide poisoning, adults shouldn’t consume more than half of a large apricot kernel or 2 small kernels in a single day, and children should avoid apricot kernels completely. Amygdalin was previously marketed as a cancer treatment, but there’s no evidence that it helps. Bitter almond, not to be confused with the commonly eaten sweet almond, also contains amygdalin, although in smaller amounts than apricot kernel. Taking bitter almond can also be toxic.

Cassava, a commonly eaten starchy root vegetable, is another one to watch out for. It can be processed to remove the cyanide, making it safe. But consuming unprocessed cassava, especially over a long period of time, can lead to cyanide poisoning. Grating and crushing both sweet and bitter cassava can remove the cyanide. Boiling, steaming, baking and frying is only effective for sweet cassava.

Believe it or not, apple and pear seeds also contain chemicals that can cause cyanide poisoning. But a large number of seeds would need to be eaten to cause toxic effects, so swallowing a seed or two while eating an apple or pear isn’t a concern. It also takes time for the poisoning to set in since the stomach needs to break down the seeds.

Lastly, watch out for wild cherry and unripe and uncooked elderberries. Wild cherry can be toxic when eaten in large amounts. And while the ripe elderberry fruit and extract are commonly eaten and used as medicine, green, unripe and uncooked elderberries can be toxic, as can the elder tree leaves and stems. It’s important to cook them to remove the toxins.

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The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2023 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.