8

In 2017, a Serbian news station reported a UK man was hospitalized after eating cherry pits

[Google translated]

Matthew Krim (28) ate cherries and out of pure curiosity swallowed three pieces along with the pits. [...] Ten minutes later he got sick and his temperature jumped. His partner Georgina Mason, 23, called an ambulance and after telling them what he had done, Crimea was rushed to hospital.

The internet disagrees on the dangers.

Is there reliable research that shows adverse effects from swallowing only a few pits?

  • 4
    Probably a better fit for Medical Sciences SE, if for nothing else than the big whooping big disclaimer about requesting or giving health advice online they have over there... – DevSolar Jul 13 at 22:55
  • 7
    I’ve swallowed them my whole life and never had a problem but I’ve always been curious. – Conor Henry Jul 13 at 23:14
  • 1
    @ConorHenry And you find no complaint from your other end? Lol. Naturally, anecdote won't suffice for an answer, hence the comment I suppose. – fredsbend Jul 14 at 0:48
  • 1
    I asked a similar question, but it was closed as a duplicate (wrongly, I think). Has anyone died from eating fruit pits that contain amygdalin (cyanide)? – fredsbend Jul 14 at 0:53
  • 3
    I think this should be split up into three questions. Does swallowing a cherry pit cause cyanide poisoning? [You need a better reference than the one provided that says "Rest assured that a small unintentional ingestion of cherry pits will not cause harm." The radio-station forum links to a much better example] Does a cherry pit cause appendicitis? [None of the references make this claim] Does a cherry pit cause constipation [None of the references make this claim]. – Oddthinking Jul 14 at 8:28
8

Cherries are known to contain compounds are toxic in high enough dosages. But that ingredient is unlikely to be what caused this man's hospitalization.

Who is the source?

B92.org is the website of a Serbian media outlet, that has been around since 1989. They are the largest media outlet in Serbia. I couldn't find any reports of motivation/bias, systemic or otherwise. I see no reason to discredit them outright, especially in regards to this article.

Other reportings of Cherry Pit Poisoning

In July 2017, the Daily Mail reported on a similar case. However, in this case the man crushed them up before eating them. Given that there is a first hand telling of the events, this makes for a more reliable reporting. However, the Daily Mail has a certain reputation, which they live up to by getting something wrong.

Is the claim plausible?

The Daily Mail claims:

The stones of cherries contain a compound called amygdalin, which breaks down into hydrogen cyanide when ingested. A lethal dose of cyanide would be 0.126g - taking into account the UK average male body weight of 84kg - and a single cherry stone contains roughly 0.17g.

The first part of this claim seems to be supported by the literature, however, the claim that a single cherry pit contains actual cyanide is not. If you read the article, you'll see that cite no sources for this claim, and perhaps we'll see why.

It is generally accepted that the ingredient in cherry pits that is toxic, and other stone fruits, is Amygdalin. Amygdalin is converted to Hydrogen Cyanide in the body. The amount of Amygdalin in a cherry pit is as high as 3.89mg per gram of pit. A cherry pit weighs about 1 gram. Being generous, lets say the 3 cherry pits weighed 4 grams, giving 15.56mg of amygdalin.

Cyanide exposures of 1.5mg/kg are known to cause acute toxicity. 1 gram of amygdalin releases 59mg of HCN. This means our 15.56mg of amygdalin releases 0.918mg of cyanide. Amygdalin content of seeds, kernels and food products commercially-available in the UK by Islamiyat Folashade Bolarinwa, Caroline Orfila, Michael R.A. Morgan, et al. Amygdalin content of seeds, kernels and food products commercially-available in the UK by Islamiyat Folashade Bolarinwa, Caroline Orfila, Michael R.A. Morgan, et al

So is that enough?

Newton et al, 1981, found an LD50 of 522mg/kg body weight, which is the lowest lethal dose found in the literature, however others note it being higher at 880mg/kg BW. The latter study also found that amygdalin was 100% lethal to rats (as in this entire sampling of rats died) at only 600mg/kg when administered with a compound also in cherries (beta-glucosidase). The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment gives an acute reference dose of 75 μg CN⁻/kg in food (Abraham et al) containing intact β-glucosidase, which increases the uptake of CN⁻ in the blood.

The average weight of an European is 71kg, so the required exposure to cyanide would be 5.33 mg of cyanide for the acute toxicity, or 37.1 grams of amygdalin to meet the LD50, however, our educated guesses are an order of magnitude lower.

Note that all the procedures in these studies describe grinding up the pits or stones. Given that whole cherry pits are not broken down in the stomach, this is necessary to absorb any meaningful portion of the amygdalin contained. Another consider is that some stones become fragile and fall apart as the fruit ripens and rots, and in these cases there is some significant risk, especially with children. But since the article describes him swallowing the cherries whole, it seems highly improbable that he could have metabolized any amygdalin at all.

Given all this, its fair to say that the Daily Mail completely missed the mark by alot here, since there is no cyanide in cherry pits, and its doubtful he ground them up to same standard as the studies. Furthermore, grinding them with your teeth will probably result the shell having sharp edges, causing what's known as a "mechanical stomach ache" as it scratched his innards on the way down. It would still not be fair to doubt the man's story, since Dr. Google has terrible beside manner and will scare the hell out of you. It's also possible that an allergy was triggered or that there were other complications.

Conclusions

  • The theoretical exposure to amygdalin was over 1000 times lower than any known threshold for affects of acute cyanide poisoning
  • The theoretical exposure to hydrogen cyanide was also much lower than any known threshold for acute affects of cyanide poisoning.
  • While there are clear cases poisoning ingesting plum and apricot pits, the articles I saw did not mention similar incidents with cherry pits.
  • In the case described in the b92.org news article, the amount described could not have been enough to cause the hospitalization, since it was not a large enough dose, nor was it ground up. We can't rule out an allergic reaction
  • In the case that the dailymail.co.uk reported its plausible he did get sick from cyanide poisoning, however, it would have been far from life threatening. My guess is that this was either psychosomatic (the result of googling if its ok to eat cherry pits) or an allergic reaction.
  • Despite all this, B92.org, as a media network, has existed since 1989 and is known for being the only major news network in Serbia. So there is no reason to assume that the reporting was biased or motivated to show harm.
  • None of this should dissuade from going to the hospital if you are feeling the affects of cyanide poisoning or an allergic reaction! Especially if you are dealing with children.

BONUS: The process of conversion of amygdalin to cyanide in the body. AND! The symptoms of acute cyanide poisoning

Conversion of amygdalin to cyanide in the body

Symptoms of cyanide poisoning include stomach cramps, headache, nausea and vomiting, and can culminate in cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, coma and death.

| improve this answer | |
  • As a personal note, I once made myself a smoothie using frozen cherries, drank a bunch of it, then noticed a shard of cherry pit. 95% (plus) of the cherries in the bag were pitted, but not all, so I freaked and called poison control, who told me to not worry because they'd have to be finely ground up. I disregarded this, because I was still freaking out and went to the hospital. Huge waste of time. edited for accuracy :) – Mark Biernacki Jul 15 at 22:44
  • 1
    The Daily Mail reports on the same case, the guy actually cracked open and ate several pits and according to the Daily mail at least, had to go to hospital. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4735234/… It is a bit of a mix up, my question was about swallowing pits whole but it was changed by others. – Ivana Jul 16 at 13:55
  • 1
    In addition, the human body detoxifies cyanide (CN⁻) by an enzyome (rhodanase) transforming it into thiocyanate (SCN⁻ aka rhodanide). This is apparently (literature my answer over on cooking.sx cooking.stackexchange.com/a/109168/52931) fast, but our sulfur reserves are limited. Making sure that there is sufficient sulfur for the detoxification by giving thiosulfate (S<sub>2</sub>O<sub>3</sub>²⁻) is one of the treatment options for acute cyanide poisoning. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment gives an acute reference dose of 75 μg CN⁻/kg body weight, so the estimated amount – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jul 16 at 22:45
  • 1
    would be officially considered OK for anyone above 14 kg body weight. Of course, if for some reason his sulfur reserves were already depleted, the bets would be off again. Otherwise, the dailymail photo looks as if even about 10x as much would have been within the limits (and those limits have a safety margin for vegetables that contain enzymes leading to a fast hydrolysis of amygdalin). Almost unrelated: crushing the pits with your teeth will lead to quite sharp edges, and I wouldn't wonder if they cause "mechanical stomach ache". – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jul 16 at 22:49
  • 1
    @MarkBiernacki: link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00204-015-1479-8 it's the Abraham et al from my answer on cooking.sx (and I didn't calculate for a 71 kg man, I calculated the other way round: how small can one be to safely eat a meal with 920 mg CN⁻) – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jul 16 at 23:33
4

Poison.org says:

The dangerous chemical found in the seeds of stone fruits is called amygdalin. Poisoning can occur when the pit and seed are crushed or chewed before swallowing, releasing the amygdalin. Amygdalin is then converted by the body to cyanide.

[...]

The amount of amygdalin in the seeds of stone fruits varies widely, both between different types of stone fruits (e.g., cherries vs. plums) and even within the same type of fruit (e.g., cherries from one tree vs. cherries from another tree or geographic location). This makes it difficult to determine the number of seeds it takes for poisoning to occur. In general, unintentional ingestions do not lead to poisoning because it is unlikely that someone would chew or crush the kernels/seeds prior to swallowing them, and because unintentional ingestions tend to be of small amounts.

So it is unlikely, but not impossible, that eating a few cherry pits lead to cyanide poisoning.

| improve this answer | |
  • So if someone had the bright idea to crush cherry seeds and ingest the result - or lacked the foresight to not dump whole cherries into a mixer - then they would be in trouble? – John Dvorak Jul 14 at 19:23
  • I'd quibble with "a few cherry pits" here. That's an assumption, as John suggests above, that crushing and intentionally eating the pit innards of "a few cherry pits" would cause poisoning. Per your source, that's virtually unknowable without a lot of details. +1 for the answer effort, however. – fredsbend Jul 14 at 19:34
  • As with everything in nature that's "poisonous", dose makes the poison. There's no such thing as "would", just "could" in increasing amounts of likelihood... – DevSolar Jul 15 at 7:26
  • Water can cause water-intoxication. There are couple of very sad cases of clear abuse where parents forced their children to drink water or soda until they died. Even adults can kill themselves doing this if they don't know it is harmful. So basically anything can become toxic in large enough quantities, nevermind the stuff that is classified as "poisonous". – Nelson Jul 15 at 8:39
  • Emphasis needs to be put on the fact that swallowing a cherry pit whole will not poison you. It needs to be crushed at least, but typically it would have to be fully powdered to be taken up by the body. – Mark Biernacki Jul 15 at 19:39

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .