Victoria Woodhall has always eaten apple cores including pips. But armchair experts on Instagram told her the seeds are poisonous. Does an apple a day keep the doctor away – or could it have them rushing to your aid? Time to ask the actual experts...
Are apple seeds toxic? Do apple pips contain cyanide? And will they kill you if you eat them? It seems legions of people are convinced the answer to all of the above is “yes”. I know this because when I, a several-a-day pip-popper for the last 40 years, innocently mentioned my habit, the confession attracted a barrage of aghast comments on Instagram.
It started when Farzanah Nasser, a nutritional therapist whose sage advice and tasty gut-friendly recipes I follow, said on Insta that there was indeed a 'best way to eat an apple', and that it included eating the core.
According to a study published in a scientific journal, the core contains the most beneficial bacteria, she explained. “Just as most of our microbes live in our gut, most of the apple’s microbes live in the core and most people will chuck out the core and miss out. I’ve decided that the most perfect way to eat an apple is to slice it in rounds, pop the seeds out, lather with almond butter and enjoy!”
I casually replied that I’d been eating apple cores daily since the age of 11, when, on my first day at secondary school, I ate an apple at break time but I didn’t know where the bins were to discard the core. Not wanting to look silly in front of my new peers and teachers, I ate the lot. And it wasn’t that bad. From that day on, it’s been my preferred pomaceous practice (try saying that with a mouthful of Cox’s).
My dad, who is 80 and cycles 70 miles at weekends, does the same. Neither of us has experienced, “nausea, vomiting, dizziness, liver damage and even death,” which, according to Farzanah, are the symptoms of cyanide poisoning. In fact, a recent liver scan revealed that I had the “liver of a baby”, according to my enthusiastic clinician.
Instagram, however, thought otherwise. “Apple seeds contain cyanide!” said one person, their comment receiving 125 likes. “Apple seed is poisonous,” proclaimed another. “The core of the apple contains arsenic,” said someone else.
Why no biohazard warnings in Sainsbury’s on the Granny Smiths? Answer: because it’s rubbish (almost).
What is the truth about apple seeds and cyanide?
“Apple seeds contain a compound called amygdalin,” explains Farzanah. “This usually passes straight through your system. If you chew the seeds then cyanide is released.”
The apple seeds and cyanide story is not entirely mythical, then. “Apple seeds can release about 0.6mg of cyanide per gram which means you would have to eat a lot of apples to get cyanide poisoning.”
How much is a lot? “Anything between 80 to 500 apple seeds daily and you’d need to be chewing all the seeds. There would be a warning on apple consumption if there was indeed a risk.”
Has anyone ever been poisoned by apple seeds?
There are very few documented cases of cyanide poisoning resulting from eating apple pips. “Most cases have involved people who have consumed large amounts of apple seeds or pits over a long period of time,” says nutritionist and scientist Dr Federica Amati.
“One case report, published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2014, describes a 67-year-old woman who experienced cyanide poisoning after consuming apple seeds as a home remedy for cancer. The woman had been eating several bags of apple seeds per week for several months and developed symptoms of cyanide poisoning, including weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath. She was treated in hospital and recovered fully.
“The cyanide is present in the form of amygdalin, a glycoside that occurs naturally in many plants, including apples. When apple pips are chewed, crushed or digested, the amygdalin in the seeds is broken down into hydrogen cyanide, a toxic substance that can cause harm to the body. The amount of cyanide in apple pips is relatively small and is unlikely to cause harm when consumed in small quantities.”
Sensing that I was doubting my 40-year habit, she added, “Not a real thing to worry about! Eat the apples – they’re good for you.”
How do the experts eat an apple?
Hmmm, but didn’t Farzanah say that she popped out the pips before eating the otherwise whole apple? I probed further. “Whenever I eat an apple at home or make a smoothie I pop the seeds out,” she says. “This is a habit more than anything and to avoid any bitterness. I also sometimes add the whole apple when I am more rushed.”
Are some apples better than others as regards cyanide/ amygdalin and for health in general?
According to the experts, ripe organic apples with a bit of nut butter seems to be the way to go for all-round benefits.
“Some apple varieties have higher levels of amygdalin than others, and the concentration of amygdalin tends to be higher in the pips of unripe apples,” says Dr Federica.
Farzanah agrees that organic is best if you can, to avoid chemicals of another kind: “Apples are on the Dirty Dozen list [of produce with the most pesticides] which means it’s always better to try and source them organically if possible as even after washing it’s hard to remove the pesticides that they are sprayed with.”
The study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, looking at consumption of the whole apple, also found that organic apples had the same number of microbes as conventional apples “but there was more diversity of microbes in the organic apple,” says Farzanah.
“Having the apple with almond butter makes it a better snack and supports good blood sugar levels,” she says.
What‘s more, apples are good for your skin, says Dr Thivi Maruthappu, consultant dermatologist and nutritionist, and yet another expert who told me I wasn’t going to die.
“I adore apples for skin health,” she says. “They contain both soluble and insoluble fibre, which are particularly important for feeding our beneficial gut bacteria. They also contain vitamin C and a powerful anti-oxidant called quercetin which helps to reduce inflammation caused by histamine in the body.”
So in hayfever season, apples are your friend!
Apple seeds and cyanide: my verdict
Hooray, I’m going to live and will hopefully have years of pip eating in front of me, just like my super-fit dad. Whether you eat the apple seeds whole, or chew them and brave the bitterness and the microdose of cyanide is up to you. It won’t harm your health either way; in fact, it might give you an extra helping of good microbes and fibre.
I have actually, on occasion, swallowed the apple stalk as well, but that was more by accident. I’m sure someone on social media will tell me with absolute certainty to beware of the hemlock…