Apple Seeds Contain Cyanide

Today I found out apple seeds contain cyanide.

The seeds of apples, also known as “pips”, contain a sugar/cyanide compound called “amygdalin”, which turns into hydrogen cyanide when it is metabolized in your body. Hydrogen cyanide was one of the key ingredients to Zyklon B, the trade name of the pesticide used by the Nazis in their gas chambers.
Other fruit seeds that also have cyanogenic glycosides are cherries, peaches, certain almonds, plums, apricots, raspberries, and pears. (“Cyanogenic glycosides” are just molecules in which sugar is bound to a smaller non-carbohydrate molecule, in this case cyanide.)  Tapioca, also known as cassava root, is another plant that contains a cyanide precursor, namely linamarin.  If the roots aren’t processed correctly (drying, soaking, and baking them for a certain amount of time), they are extremely poisonous.

It takes only about 100-200 mg of cyanide, when eaten, or about 270 parts per million, when breathed in, to be fatal to an adult within a few minutes (about .68 mg per pound of body weight); obviously much less cyanide is needed to be fatal to children or pets.  Before you go panicking after accidentally swallowing an apple seed, you should know that ingesting a few seeds won’t kill you.  The human body is perfectly capable of handling very small doses of cyanide.  This is lucky for tobacco smokers; when a person smokes a cigarette, they’re breathing in low doses of hydrogen cyanide, which is then processed by the liver so that it can’t accumulate to sufficient amounts to cause major problems.

Another reason swallowing apple seeds isn’t that dangerous is that, if you just swallowed the seed without chewing it, it is likely to pass through your digestive system completely intact and undigested.  However, if for some odd reason you get a hankering to chew a bunch of apple seeds, or if your toddler decides apple seeds are the tastiest thing since ice cream, you should probably get yourself or your child to an emergency room stat.  If you can’t get to the hospital extremely quickly, it’s best to induce vomiting immediately.  Emptying your stomach of the cyanide is generally the first thing they’ll do at the hospital anyways, though usually via a stomach pump.
In either case, you have to be quick to take action because cyanide kills extremely fast.  It works by stopping your body from being able to use oxygen.  More specifically, cyanide binds to an enzyme inside the powerhouse of your cells (mitochondria) and stops them from being able to use oxygen to create energy. Thus, shortly after ingesting a sufficient dose of it, you’ll die of asphyxiation.

Specific symptoms of cyanide poisoning include, in mild cases, dizziness, confusion, anxiety, headaches, and vomiting. Slightly more severe effects include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, kidney failure, and breathing problems. In a sufficient dose, the most severe symptoms include convulsions, coma, and finally death.
Treatment for cyanide poisoning beyond using a stomach pump or inducing vomiting  was once very limited, but today there are some effective antidotes available, though getting them administered in time is sometimes a bit of an issue.  One of the more effective antidotes for cyanide poisoning has only become available since 2006.  This goes under the brand name Cyanokit which contains hydroxocobalamin.  Hydroxocobalamin reacts with the cyanide to form cyanocabalamin, which your kidneys are able to get rid of.

Bonus Facts:
  • The drug company Bayer, who once trademarked and marketed Heroin as a non-addictive alternative to morphine, had their legacy significantly tarnished during WWII when they became part of the Farben German chemical company conglomerate that is known to have used slave labor during WWII, including managing slave labor camps.  Further, Farben was the group that manufactured Zyklon B, which as noted was the cyanide based pesticide used in the Nazi gas chambers.  Bayer was forced to separate from Farben after WWII.

  • Johnny Appleseed was a real person.  Read more about this here: Johnny Appleseed was a Real Person
  • Certain types of plastics when burned release hydrogen cyanide.  This is yet another reason not to burn plastic or if you do, don’t stand near the flames or breathe the smoke.

  • If you’re caught in a house fire, you can also sometimes be killed by cyanide poisoning, even if you happen to make it out. This is because there are potentially many things in your home that when burned release hydrogen cyanide.  Given that there are very few signs and symptoms that can be definitively recognized as cyanide poisoning, particularly if a person is unconscious, it’s very hard for emergency workers in the field to recognize you are dying of cyanide poisoning, until it’s too late.  If you were just pulled out of a burning house, they also are likely checking and treating you for other things unrelated to cyanide poisoning.  Thus, the survival rate for people who experience cyanide poisoning from a house fire is fairly low.

  • Cyanide was the poison used in the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana by the Peoples Temple.  Over 900 people, including children committed suicide by drinking “Flavor Aid” that contained potassium cyanide.
  • Probably the largest ever unintentional mass-death due to cyanide poisoning occurred in 1984 in Bhopal, India.  Several thousand tons of meythyl isocyanate were accidentally released into the air, killing around 25,000 people.

  • Cyanide is somewhat popularly used in gold and silver mining (accounting for about 13% of the global annual usage of cyanide today).  It turns out cyanide works well for dissolving gold and silver.  It is first mixed with finely ground ore; the gold or silver then dissolved out of the ore and the solution is collected.  The cyanide/gold or silver liquid mixture is further processed using zinc or activated carbon to extract the precious metal.

  • Cyanide supposedly smells like bitter almonds.  However, not everyone seems to be able to detect the odor (about 40% of people can’t), so next time you’re sipping tea with Dr. Evil, don’t count on your nose to be able to sniff out whether he’s poisoned your drink.

  • Apple trees (Species Malus Domestica) are a member of the rose family (Family Rosaceae) as are most of the other fruits listed above that contain a cyanide precursor.

  • Most apple trees cannot pollinate themselves. Their blossoms must be pollinated from another apple tree. The resulting fruit will be the same as the parent tree, but the seeds inside the fruit will have a genetic makeup from both trees. Say you have a Granny Smith apple tree in flower, and it gets pollinated from a nearby crab apple tree. The fruit that results will be a Granny Smith, but the seeds inside will have a questionable genetic makeup. Think of the apple as a pregnant belly, which results from a fertile mother. The baby inside is the seed. This seed is a genetic combination of the mother and father. The fruit that gets produced on the tree that follows is anyone’s guess. Given that there is no effective chastity belt for an apple tree with thousands of open and waiting blossoms that can be fertilized by any number of nearby suitors, it is impossible to know what fruit will be produced. Basically making apple trees the call girls of the fruit world and their offspring the bastard children of botany. Should you want to know for sure what kind of fruit the tree will yield, you will need to graft the tree, or pollinate it yourself (kinky).

  • Apples trees have been producing fruit for millions of years. Their human-like way of creating offspring using this genetic variability has allowed them to survive in environments very different from one another. Whether in California or Kazakhstan, each apple has about 7 seeds and several thousand seeds per tree, so it stands to reason that whatever adopted home the tree chooses to grow, there will be a few seeds that will have the genetic makeup to survive in that area.

  • In August of 2010 an Italian-led research consortium was able to decode the apple’s genome. This decoding led to many discoveries that showed the amazing ability of the apple tree to survive over time. They showed that apples have been around for over 50 million years, and around that time their genome nearly doubled from 9 to the current 17. Approximately 3000-4000 years ago people domesticated the tree and began cultivating them from a wild progenitor (original ancestor) Malus Sieversii. This particular species is still widespread in China and Kazakhstan, however is in danger of becoming extinct. Archeological evidence has also shown humans have been eating apples since at least 6500 B.C.

  • The genetic variability of apples has also given them the largest number of genes of any plant genome studied, approximately 57,000. For comparison sake, the human genome has about 30,000 genes! They also found that apples have 992 genes solely responsible for disease resistance. If only their human concubine counterparts could have such a capability of disease resistance! (practice safe sex kids!)

  • There are seemingly limitless varieties of apples that could come from any one apple producing operation. There are currently 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the United States, and 7,500 grown throughout the world. Because of this, current large scale apple producers use several techniques to insure specific types of apples do not vary greatly from one generation to the next.

  • Of the worldwide 64 million tons of apples produced in 2008, 42% were grown in China. While this may seem strange at first to those of us accustomed to the phrase “As American as apple pie”, it suits the origin of the species, Western Asia. The U.S. was the second greatest producer of apples in 2008, growing 6.6% of the total.  Third place is a bit more surprising- Iran, with 2.6 million tons, or 4.1% of the world’s apples.

  • Four steps must be followed in a modern apple breeding program:
    1. Definition of a prototype. This prototype must combine traits that are important to the consumer. Show resistance to major diseases, and be able to be stored long term.

    2. Actually producing hybrids from available varieties that show the traits stated in the prototypes definition.
    3. Cultivation of the hybrid fruit with replications in different places and years.
    4. Registration and patenting of the best fruit.

    This 4 step process generally takes between 15-20 years. This time frame is currently being reduced as genetic testing allows desirable varieties to be identified in as little as 4-5 months vs. the 4-5 years in older breeding programs.
  • For the health conscious out there, apples are fat, sodium, and cholesterol free. They are also a great source of the fiber pectin, containing about 5 grams worth, two-thirds of which is contained in the peel. The peel also contains several antioxidants that help reduce damage to cells. Further, a medium apple is only about 80 calories. For the not-so-health-conscious, 2 pounds of apples will produce one 9 inch apple pie.

  • The largest apple every picked weighed 3 pounds.

  • The science of apple growing is called pomology.
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