History and Stories

Apricot Kernel Cancer Conspiracy’s Insane Story

The content in this article is best experienced by watching the following video: 

I am not a trained medical adviser, nutritionist, chemist or historian in any form. Just a fat boi with a YouTube channel. I encourage you to read through my list of sources before coming to any conclusions.

Apricot Kernels are seeds that resemble and taste like almonds, used in recipes like Chinese Almond Tofu and the sweet Italian liqueur amaretto. In online retailers, it is marketed as a natural source of Vitamin B17, or Laetrile. On the surface, it looks just like any other health food product. But while browsing the comments in apricot kernel-related products and sites, I started to notice that the things people claim this seed can do are… a little dubious. 

Some Amazon reviews claim that eating Apricot Kernels has allowed their cancer to heal, and recommend eating them daily for cancer prevention. One such comment claimed that eating these raw killed his father’s cancer cells in a mere 3 weeks. Another claimed that a nephew with Stage 4 Prostate cancer decided not to go for surgery, chemo and radiation, and swapping to Laetrile and a plant-based diet saw his tumour go from the size of a baseball to a small grape. After intense study on cancer, the reviewer’s eyes are opened to the atrocities inflicted on Americans by Big Pharma.

Believe what you will, but to me trusting Amazon reviews to find the next cancer cure isn’t exactly the brightest idea.

The compound found in Apricot Kernels responsible for anti-cancer claims is called Amygdalin, sometimes also improperly named vitamin b17, and more frequently in history called Laetrile.

Laetrile: Is it effective?

Thing is, scientific studies have found laetrile to be clinically ineffective in treating cancer, and may, in fact, cause cyanide poisoning. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of recorded cyanide poisoning cases:

  • 67 year old who self-prescribed apricot kernel extract https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5623210/
  • 13 patients from a Turkish University https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20196932/
  • A woman with lung cancer in Jiangsu, China http://politics.people.com.cn/BIG5/n/2014/1225/c70731-26274520.html

Although apricot kernels are allowed to be sold as a health food, amygdalin or laetrile is not approved as a cancer treatment in the United States, and there are regulations in Europe controlling the amount of amygdalin in apricot kernels. A study commissioned by the European Food Safety Agency found amygdalin ineffective and toxic.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand straight out banned apricot kernels from being sold, citing various reports of cyanide poisoning. Official health bodies from countries like Canada, UAE and Malaysia have also sent out warnings about the dangers of eating raw apricot kernels.

Yet, proponents of the apricot kernel see this as a giant conspiracy between the United State’s Food and Drug Administration, Big Pharma, and the medical community to discredit cheap cancer treatment methods in order to sell expensive treatments like chemotherapy. This almost cult like crusade against the proven toxicity of apriot kernels can be seen almost anywhere online.

Many YouTube videos warning of cyanide poisoning tend to be highly disliked. Commenters would call out content creators as propaganda and accusing them of taking money from big pharma.

Digging deeper into the history of Apricot Kernels and Laetrile I’d discover a rabbit hole of nearly half a century’s worth of political and legal struggles. Arguably, no other alternative cancer treatment had provided as much of an effective challenge to medical expertise in American history and managed the same amount of support that the apricot kernel achieved.

The Beginning: Ernst T Krebs

The contentious history of Laetrile would begin with Ernst T Krebs, a pharmacist who received his medical degree from the San Francisco College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1903. During the Spanish flu, he became convinced that an old Native American remedy made from a rare species of parsley (Leptotoemia dissecta) was effective against the disease. He cited the Washoe Tribe surviving the epidemic in greater numbers compared to other tribes as evidence for this.

Ernst T Krebs Jr

Claiming that this remedy was also effective against asthma, whooping cough, tuberculosis and pneumonia, he set up the Balsamea Company in San Francisco to market this remedy as Syrup Leptinol. 

In the early 1920s, these supplies were seized by the FDA (back then called the Bureau of Chemistry) on the grounds of false claims made by the product. In the 1940s, he worked together with his son, Ernst Krebs Jr, and submitted a patent for a drug partly manufactured from apricot kernels. After receiving a patent in 1949, he later started promoting this as Pangamic acid, giving it the name Vitamin B-15, which he claims was effective against various ailments.

However, other researchers say that there were insufficient data to determine if the molecule had in fact been isolated or characterised by them, and the data were not presented to support the curative properties. Krebs’ methods of producing the ester were also not reproducible, and available research doesn’t show significant evidence to support their claims.

Before Krebs, the compound amygdalin was already extracted from bitter almond seeds by two French chemists Pierre-Jean Robiquet and Antoine Boutron-Charlard. Previously, there were already attempts to use amygdalin as a cancer treatment. First, in 1845 in Russia, then 1892 in Germany; in both instances, it was considered too poisonous to be used for that purpose.

Dr Krebs had given two versions on the origins of how he and his son derived the refined form of amygdalin called Laetrile. That is also to say that the exact date of origin isn’t clear. Historian James Harvey Young suspects that Laetrile’s origins may have been backdated in order to evade the regulations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act implemented in 1938, as well as the Kefauver Harris Amendment in 1962. The former would require new drugs to receive FDA approval that they were safe before legally allowed to be marketed in the US, and the latter requires that new drugs were both “safe” and “effective”.

Laetrile’s canon story among promoters is furnished in a court affidavit signed by Dr Krebs in 1965. This traces back to 1926, when Dr Krebs was still a pharmacy student. While working on a bourbon flavouring, he made an extract from apricot kernels called Sarcacinase. Basing his research on John Beard’s trophoblastic theory, which was already a highly dismissed theory, Krebs theorised that the extract can break down “cancer proteins”. This first proved to be too toxic when injected into rats, but after improving his extraction process, he achieved a higher purity of amygdalin. In 1949, his son, Krebs Jr, modified this again and named the result laetrile.

The other version of Laetrile’s origins dates back to 1951. In an interview with FDA officials in December 1952, Dr Krebs claimed to have begun experimenting with an extract from apricot pits. He claims that, when injected near a cancerous lesion, this is able to liquefy malignant growth by releasing cyanide. He asserted that this was tested successfully on patients, though he had no records to prove so.

According to Dr Krebs’ 1952 account, the time they worked on the 1950 article was when Laetrile was born. But the article in question only mentioned chymotrypsin – not Laetrile. Cancer specialists in California weren’t convinced of Laetrile’s efficacy and wanted to secure Laetrile from Krebs to undergo clinical trials under the direction of the Research Committee and the Tumor Board of the Los Angeles Hospital. Krebs Jr objected to these tests, saying that he is anxious to have clinical work commenced, but they would be too difficult for physicians ignorant of trophoblastic theory to test.

When the Cancer Commission of the California Medical Association finally got hold of a supply of Laetrile, The Commission investigated 44 patients treated with Laetrile and found no objective evidence that Laetrile alone was an effective control for cancer.

While these had discredited the drug among the medical community, Laetrile’s support would continue to grow behind the scenes, largely driven by one person.

The ‘Godfather’ of Laetrile: Andrew McNaughton

Andrew Robert Leslie McNaughton (photo by Maclean’s Magazine)

Andrew Robert Leslie McNaughton, although the son of the renowned Canadian General Andrew G. L McNaughton, had been involved with the darker side of society; smuggling arms and advising on revolutions since 1946 through a consulting firm called Norcan in South America. McNaughton had been surprisingly candid with the press and had seen his name entangled with the likes of stock swindles and the Mafia.

Through his experience in setting up factories, organisational networks and smuggling, McNaughton established Laetrile factories in Monte Carlo, Geneva, Germany, and potentially four more in the United States after meeting Ernst Krebs around 1956 or 57. Requests for Laetrile as a cancer treatment had expanded to other states and overseas. By operating on a small scale and being promoted as an unregulated investigatory drug, they had avoided regulatory troubles from the FDA.

In 1960, Harry Hoxsey, another alternative cancer treatment salesman, was forced to close his clinics by the US government. His successor, who was no longer allowed to use Hoxsey’s mixture, had ordered Laetrile, and this resulted in the FDA’s first seizure of an interstate shipment of Laetrile. When the Kefauver-Harris law had finally been implemented, authorities fined Krebs Jr $3,755, placing him on three years probation with provisions to not mess with Laetrile anymore.

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Andrew McNaughton promptly moved Laetrile operations to Montreal, although this was soon illegal in Canada. In 1962, the Montreal General Hospital investigated three patients who claimed to have been cured by Laetrile but found that two had not had biopsies, and cancer in the third had spread.

But production for Laetrile continued on. McNaughton managed to get Laetrile’s visibility up, convincing surgeons to publish reports in alternative medicine journals, and getting writers to publish articles and books.

The favourable publicity got some US citizens to cross the borders to Montreal to get Laetrile injections, and operations continued in Canada until 1970 when he was forced to shut down. Operations once again changed locations, this time to Tijuana in Mexico.

He then tried to get FDA approval for the experimental use of Laetrile on human subjects. The application had no new promising evidence of working, but the FDA approved it according to routine. Eight days later, the FDA sent a letter stating that the application can’t be continued without more satisfactory data. When no new information arrived before the deadline, they cancelled the application.

Politicisation and legal battles

Although seemingly routine, that wasn’t how Laetrile supporters interpreted the situation. The politics of the Vietnam war and Watergate had sown distrust and cynicism towards the government, steering people towards more populist ideologies. Pro-Laetrile literature had, at this point, moved outside the scientific community.

Besides supporters of Laetrile, figures of various other unorthodox treatments enjoined by the FDA had also started consolidating together behind a single cause: the freedom of choice in medical treatment. 

FDA’s non-approval was seen as deception and conspiracy, that the FDA reversed the application because of pressure from the political moguls of the cancer research establishment.

In the 70s, Laetrile marketing changed remarkably. Supporters of nutritional products pushed a campaign that successfully resulted in a series of legislation called the Proxmire Amendment. These amendments in 1976 made it so that food supplements could not be classified as drugs, and were able to be sold without a prescription from a doctor.

Krebs argued that Laetrile is a vitamin. That is, cancer is a deficiency disease, and could be prevented by regularly eating de-fatted apricot kernels. In addition, it needs to be administered as part of a complex program involving diet, exercise, rest, detoxification, minerals, and enzymes. Direct injections of Laetrile, on the other hand, are to be used for cancer treatment.

Another important catalyst for Laetrile’s popularity in the 70s was when one of the most prestigious cancer centres in the world, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, got involved with Laetrile.

Kanematsu Sugiura, a well-known cancer researcher, conducted an experiment twice and found that Laetrile tended to inhibit the spread of certain tumours. Though these experiments were completed in 1973, they were never published. According to Chester Stock, Vice-President of the Institute and the one in charge of later experiments, publishing those early positive data would have “caused all kinds of havoc”.

Kanematsu Sugiura

But by 1975 these data were too controversial to hide. Laetrile supporters had gotten hold of Sugiura’s paper, and published it in a pamphlet entitled ‘Anatomy of a Coverup’.

In 1977, Sloan-Kettering then completed another more thorough and comprehensive study on Laetrile, but this time, the findings found that Laetrile was ineffective. Within months of the 1977 findings, serious objections were raised by Laetrile supporters, alleging that Sloan-Kettering suppressed findings and rigged their experiments.

Laetrile advocates also started contesting court cases to prevent the FDA from banning interstate sales, winning permission to import supplies of Laetrile. In the most famous of these cases, Rutherford V United States, the Judge held that in being ‘denied freedom of choice for treatment by Laetrile to alleviate or cure their cancer, [the cancer patient] were deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

Although the FDA appealed, the Court of Appeals ruled in favour of Rutherford.

By taking the dispute out of the scientific community and into state legislatures, proponents of Laetrile had successfully pushed for legalisation. In 1976, Alaska became the first of many states to legalize Laetrile.

That isn’t to say that Laetrile was on the path to complete legalisation; most would only permit physicians to prescribe Laetrile for terminally ill patients. In many states, the drug is not allowed to be prescribed, and it was definitely not FDA approved.

Not every court case started were in favour of Laetrile. A widow in Georgia sued a physician who prescribed only Laetrile for her husband’s cancer. The jury had decided that the physician was not responsible for her husband’s death, though they decided on an award of $15,000 for medical and other expenses attendant upon his last illness.

It is estimated that over the next decade, more than 70 thousand Americans took Laetrile. Those who were denied by their stateside doctors had crossed into Mexico for injections.

Most famously, Actor Steve McQueen secretly travelled to Baja in 1980 to receive laetrile for advanced lung cancer. He died months later during surgery despite US doctors advising that the tumour was inoperable.

In the face of the multitude of political and legal battles, there was a sense of urgency for a definitive study to prove or disprove laetrile’s efficacy. In the ideal scenario, this would have been a clinical trial done on human patients.

But this proved to be difficult as the prevailing system require drugs to first pass animal tests before moving to volunteers. Additionally, Laetrile’s supporters were not in agreement with the validity of experiments conducted by the medical establishment. For instance, the exact composition of Laetrile is heavily debated, and it is thought that there were multiple versions of the drug. Laetrile supporters also considered the size of the cancer lump to be irrelevant, which went against the view of traditional oncologists.

While publicly appealing for testing, Laetrile proponents had also been reluctant or unable to provide complete data on patients for evaluation.

Around 1978 the National Cancer Institute had hoped to get full enough records of the 70000 patients for a retrospective study and appealed to more than 400,000 physicians and other health professionals for said records. However, in the end, only 93 cases were submitted for evaluation, among which only 6 were evaluable for response.

Based on these 6 cases, the NCI decided to sponsor phase I and phase II clinical trials.

The definitive phase II clinical trial was conducted in 1982, with one hundred and seventy-eight patients, conducted just the way Laetrilists recommended, with high doses of Laetrile, and a special metabolic therapy program. It concluded that Laetrile is a toxic drug that is not effective as a cancer treatment.

Before these trials were concluded, Californian officials had also been investigating key figures of the Laetrile movement.

They found that Robert W. Bradford of Los Altos, president of a 35 thousand members organization seeking to legalize laetrile, the Committee for Freedom of Choice in Cancer Therapy Inc., had been taking in $150 to 200 thousand a month on laetrile sales.

The inquiry also revealed that Krebs Jr, although commonly referred to as “Dr”, had not actually completed medical school, and was expelled after repeating his freshman year and failing his sophomore year. The doctorate degree he holds is awarded by a small Bible school in Tulsa, which was not empowered to award any degrees other than a bachelor’s.

Records would also indicate that Krebs and his brother, Byron Krebs, had an income of 250 thousand in 1970 and 1971 from the sale of laetrile and other substances not recognised as valid drugs.

Dr. Richardson, one of the first physicians to promote Laetrile as a cancer cure, was barely making ends meet through his medical practice before prescribing Laetrile. After being involved, his net income rose more than tenfold from 10 thousand 4 hundred to 172 thousand.

McNaughton’s alleged stock scandals and involvement in Laetrile was also summarised.

In total, the size of Laetrile smuggling in recent years had been estimated at 20 million dollars.

Laetrile still thrives today

Although the fiasco in the 70s seemed to have reached a conclusion, laetrile believers seem to disagree with all the counter-arguments against the apricot kernel extract. 

Gregory Sarna, one of the co-authors of the 1982 clinical trial, remembers that some of the patients wanting the treatment to be continued even though their tumour had clearly grown, their bodies had gotten weaker and clearly sicker.

Testimonies of cancer patients who claimed that Laetrile cured their cancer are all over the internet, like this one which got hundreds of thousands of views:

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Three decades after Dr Richardson’s death, his son John Richardson Jr, now operates the health food chain Apricot Power, selling products like bitter seeds, tablets, and anti ageing foam. Though the revenue numbers are unknown, his family operation of around 10 employees has served thousands of customers all over the world since 1999. This time, the word “cancer” isn’t used in marketing to avoid trouble with the FDA.

Ralph Moss, the science writer and whistleblower who leaked information about Dr. Sugiura’s results, now charges cancer patients $800 for hour-long phone consultations.

There are also those like Jason Vale, a professional arm wrestler, who claims that his kidney cancer was healed because of apricot seeds and then sold those seeds as a cure. He was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to five years in prison for not heeding warnings from the FDA. Apparently, their small venture has raked in 850 thousand dollars from 2013 to 2019 selling apricot seeds and related products. Though, in an interview with Access, he said that he don’t know the numbers and these go into paying employees and the products.

The other side of the story are people who died from cancer after seeking alternative treatment, like in the case of Charlene Campbell. Campbell’s daughter developed a rare form of cancer that only 40-50 children in the world has and died at the age of 12 months. 5 years later, Campbell developed breast cancer. Having watched her daughter undergo chemotherapy, she developed a fear of the disease and didn’t want to use the same treatment.

Her replacement was alternative treatment, which included an all-vegetarian diet, cannabis oil and apricot seeds. Soon after her 33rd birthday, she died of cancer.

Are there any merits to Laetrile?

Laetrile and apricot kernel studies are still being conducted today. A 2015 review looked over 200 references to find 69 potentially relevant references, but couldn’t find any reliable evidence that they could cure cancer. The European Food Safety Authority’s study summarised many cases of cyanide poisoning, including 260 cases of children hospitalised in Turkey from the year 2000 to 2004, and a 28-month-old girl who died after eating 10 apricot kernels.

Even though Laetrile supporters tend to advise for eating more apricot kernels, the conspiracy theory book and accompanying documentary World Without Cancer, which is commonly said to be a must-read to learn about Laetrile, says that “it’s wise to follow the simple rule: that one should not eat at one time more seeds than he likely would consume if he also were eating a reasonable quantity of the whole fruit. This is a common-sense rule with a large safety margin that can be followed with complete confidence.” 

Which is to say that even the “laetrile bible” isn’t exactly advocating for people to eat vast quantities of apricot kernels. Yet… people still do it. 

Why exactly are people still so adamant about apricot kernel’s effectiveness? Are there any merits to their arguments?

Up to date, the scientific merits of Laetrile and apricot kernels are still being studied. In fact, there are many recent studies that would conclude by saying things like “might be useful as an anticancer agent”, “amygdalin combinations in the treatment of bone cancer are significant”, and “may be considered a valuable candidate for specific treatment of breast cancer patients”.

The reason that these studies still don’t allow Laetrile to qualify as an effective cancer treatment isn’t because of some giant conspiracy, but that these studies simply aren’t the best kinds of evidence we have. Many such studies are in vitro studies, which basically means these are conducted in a petri dish. Killing cancer cells in a petri dish is a lot different than in a human body. In a petri dish, a handgun can also kill cancer cells.

Credits: xkcd.com

Scientific evidence is typically ranked in a hierarchy, and the best kinds of evidence are usually randomised human clinical trials.

To date, the best evidence we have is only the one conducted in 1982. And that particular trial doesn’t even have a control group.

To understand the arguments of a Laetrile supporter, I have also given the book written by conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin, World without Cancer a read. While the book raised various interesting points, reading the book proved to be incredibly difficult as nearly every sentence in the book required me to fact check.

In one chapter, the merits of the Apricot Kernel are said to be found in the diets of the Hunzakuts, said to have no known incidence of cancer and live expectancy of beyond a hundred years.

Problem is, this is a myth far from the truth. The Hunza secret to old age is an absence of birth records, and illiterate elders tend to overestimate their ages. They also tended to suffer from various ailments.

John Clark, a geologist who spent 20 months with the Hunza people in the 1950s and wrote Hunza – Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, found that they were overall unhealthy.

Additionally, World Without Cancer fails to distinguish between bitter and sweet varieties of Apricot Kernels. John Clark’s book has a paragraph describing that Hunzas tend to eat sweet apricot nuts plain, while the bitter ones are extracted for their oil which is highly poisonous.

In one case, John Clark mentioned that the Hunzas, after a winter feast called the Tumushuling, tend to develop very sore stomachs. And this is because the Hunzas used bitter apricot oil to flavour their wine, and this gave them cyanide poisoning from the prussic acid.

On another page, it also mentions cases where women ate fifty bitter apricot seeds to commit suicide.

I also found a Hunza cooking channel and left a comment asking if they eat apricot kernels raw and got cyanide poisoning. Cookingclinic replied that she didn’t witness such cases, but eating too much bitter apricot kernels is not recommended.

All that was just from about fact-checking 3 pages of the World Without Cancer book, so I hope you can understand how painful it was to read.

In World Without Cancer, a whole conspiracy between the Rockefeller and big pharma is also constructed, but unfortunately, fact-checking that would be too much of an undertaking.

Instead, let’s tackle this particular claim made in the book with common sense: that the cancer industry earns too much money, so they are denying cheap cures like Laetrile which you can simply get by eating apricot kernels.

Let’s assume that we don’t already know the Laetrile sellers are earning quite a lot of money.

All it takes for the big pharma theory to fall is for one pharma company to start using apricot kernels and undercut everybody else. Now let us also assume that all of the American pharma has conspired together.

Now, all we need is simply the understanding that other countries exist outside of the United States. For example, one country that doesn’t like the US is China, which according to NatureIndex has 38 institutions out of the top 200 in the world for cancer research.

One would imagine that drawing cancer patients around the world away from the US to China is a really good show of power and technological advancement. Just like this one in Guangzhou, which received over 30,000 overseas patients for a somewhat relatively obscure surgery called cryotherapy.

What you’ll also realise if you have knowledge of Traditional Chinese medicine is that apricot kernels are highly prized, and Apricot Forests are a synonym for the Traditional Chinese Medicine field. So a headline like “Ancient Chinese medicine unlocks new possibilities for cancer treatment” would have been a really good headline that shows Chinese superiority over the Westerners who lost their chance of finding a cancer cure while having meaningless political infighting.

Of course, I’m not saying that the conspiracy argument is entirely without merit. The book Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre manages to do this without resorting to conspiracy theories. Some of which include questioning why clinical trials routinely reach conclusions favourable to the company, clinical trials withholding treatment known to work for the purpose of skewing test results causing 11 children to die, or selling more expensive drugs even though they weren’t more effective.

You don’t have to resort to conspiracy theories and bad science to criticise big pharma.

I certainly won’t say that it’s impossible for apricot kernels to be beneficial against cancer, but it would be stupid to deny the evidence we have and blindly trust apricot kernel sellers who more than likely have a great financial incentive to sell you conspiracy theories.

As for the rest of Laetrile history, there is a lot not covered in this video as the entire story is simply too complicated. Hopefully, this is still educational and now you know the whole story of why apricot kernels are being sold as health food.

There are still legitimate uses for them, like in Chinese Almond Tofu and in certain Hunza recipes. If you’re worried about cyanide, grinding, soaking and cooking generally reduces the amount of cyanide content.

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