Picture this. There you are, happily snacking away on as many cherries as you could carry home from the farmers' market, when you realize. You swallowed a pit.
Should you panic?
The good news is, you’re not alone. Cherries are the fruit that Poison Control most often comes across the issue with, as their small size means they’re more prone to being accidentally ingested.
The bad news? Cherry pits do contain cyanide, a deadly chemical that prevents cells from using oxygen.
But how dangerous are they, really? I spoke to the experts to learn more, so you can snack away worry-free.
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Technically, the chemical present in cherry pits is amygdalin, which “can be broken down by enzymes [in your body] to create deadly hydrogen cyanide,” says our science editor, Paul Adams.
Turns out, it’s not just cherries that are a cause for concern—a lot of common fruits contain amygdalin in their seeds or pits. “The fruit seeds with significant amounts of amygdalin are in the Rosaceae family: apricots, cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears,” says Adams. “There's also a small amount in the seeds of squash, melons, and cucumbers.”
That might sound terrifying, but I spoke with Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, Medical Toxicologist, and Co-Medical Director at the National Capital Poison Center, who assured me there’s not necessarily a need to panic about a single swallowed intact pit.
The seeds and pits that contain amygdalin are most dangerous when chewed or crushed, which causes a “chemical reaction that allows the cyanide to be released,” she says. While it can be dangerous to swallow intact seeds and pits because “your own gastrointestinal system can digest the seeds and release the cyanide . . . it is going to be less dangerous than if you chew them,” Johnson-Arbor says.
It’s tricky to pinpoint the exact number of cherry pits that could be harmful, but unintentional consumption is typically in very small quantities, so there’s no need to worry if you swallow an intact pit by mistake.
The Best Cherry PittersDe-stoning cherries is the pits—unless you have the right tool.
But what about in cooking? Cherry clafouti, a classic French dessert, is traditionally baked with whole, unpitted cherries, as it’s said that the pits contribute a spicy, floral flavor. I asked Adams how safe this method was, and he confirmed, “if the pits are whole when they're baked, the heat will at least partially inactivate the enzymes in the pit, so amygdalin will not be converted to cyanide.”
Good news for the clafouti fans among us. (If you’re at all concerned, though, our recipe for Cherry Clafouti uses pitted cherries and adds in a pinch of cinnamon to compensate for the flavor.)
Despite the low risk of swallowing a single cherry pit, it’s still important to be aware of the danger signs of cyanide poisoning, Johnson-Arbor cautions. “It’s definitely something you want to seek medical attention for immediately if there’s any concern for cyanide poisoning,” she says.
So what should you do if you’re concerned? There’s never any harm in contacting Poison Control by calling 1-800-222-1222. “It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7,” says Johnson-Arbor. “For food adverse reactions, people wouldn’t normally think to contact us but we are here to help.”
Photo credit: Cavan Images via Getty Images