My Favorite (poisonous) Fruit

Yes, cherries (more precisely, cherry pits) contain a poison.  Not an esoteric, unimpressive, unimportant type of poison either, we’re talking CYANIDE, or rather, a cyanide-like compound called amygdalin.   These types of cyanogenic glycosides or cyanogens are found in over 2500 plant species, including apple and pear seeds and in the pits of apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums. When cyanogens are ingested, the human body metabolizes them into cyanide.

But before you snatch these healthy treats away from your kids and shove them down the garbage disposal, realize that the amygdalin is found only in the hard pits or seeds (not the tasty flesh).  In order to release the amygdalin, the pits must be chewed up before being swallowed, and the concentration of the toxin is so low that large numbers of seeds or pits are required to cause toxicity. Cyanide toxicity resulting from unintentional ingestion of these pits and seeds is extremely rare in the United States. Realistically, the pits and seeds are more of a choking hazard than a poisoning risk.  At least a couple of times a year here at IPC, we get called about a child who has ingested 10-20 cherry pits whole.  These kids have done just fine and developed no symptoms at all.  The man, the myth, the legend, Tony Burda is known for eating his daily apple whole, seeds and all (he says the seeds “taste interesting”).  Intentional large ingestions however, have resulted in toxicity, including a few cases of ingestion of 20-40 chewed apricot pits by adults which resulted in cyanide toxicity but no fatalities.

One cyanogenic plant that is more of a concern when it comes to unintentional poisoning is cassava (otherwise known as yuca).  Cassava is a starchy food staple in many parts of Central and South America and in Africa. In my opinion it tastes kind of like a cross between a potato and a plantain. It is used to make tapioca and Asian bubble drinks, and I’ve had it as a side dish at restaurants.  The cyanogenic glycosides in cassava are linamarin and lotaustralin instead of amygdalin. Usually, processing (drying, soaking, boiling) cassava removes 80-95% of the cyanogenic compounds, but inefficient processing can lead to much higher levels of cyanogens in these dishes.  Cassava contains a much higher level of linamarin and lotaustralin during a drought as well, and fatal cyanide poisoning has occurred after ingestion of this ‘bitter’ cassava.

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