Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Mystery Behind The Seeds


"Don't eat the seeds!  They're poisonous and you could die!"  You've probably heard someone blurt this out as you chomped down on your apple when you were a kid.  But is it really true?  And do the seeds of different fruits actually have any nutritional value?

We'll take a look at some common fruits and see whether or not it's safe to eat their seeds or whether you might be throwing away the best part.  So let go of those childhood fears as we uncover the science behind the mystery of all those seeds.

Apples

You've probably heard that if you eat the seeds of an apple that it's dangerous and you'll get cyanide poisoning.  There is some truth to this but you would have to eat a lot of apples to make this happen.  Apple seeds contain amygdalin which can be broken down into hydrogen cyanide which can cause the following harmful effects as reported by the CDC - low blood pressure, convulsions, respiratory failure, coma, and even death.  However, apple seeds only contain 0.6mg/g of cyanide [1].  Lethal doses of cyanide range from 50-200 mg [2].  So you would have to ingest about 85 grams or roughly 1/2 cup of apple seeds to get a fatal dose.  Since there are only up to 10-15 seeds per apple it is highly unlikely that anyone would consume enough to cause any problems.  Not to mention the fact that the seeds have to be crushed or pulverized to release the cyanide.  If you happen to eat the apple seeds whole then they will most likely travel through your entire digestive tract unchanged and be excreted intact in your waste products.

Watermelon

Watermelon is a summertime favorite for many of you out there and it turns out that their seeds have some valuable health benefits too!  Watermelon seeds are an excellent source of B vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, folate, and niacin.  B vitamins are needed to keep a healthy immune and nervous system, prevent anemia, and to maintain healthy skin.

Watermelon seeds do tend to be high in fat with about 71% of their total calories derived from fats.  However, they contain some of the healthier fats known as mono and polyunsaturated fats in addition to the less popular saturated fats.  They're also a good source of protein and contain all the essential amino acids that are important to get from your diet.  One last thing worth mentioning about watermelon seeds is that they're an excellent source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and manganese.

Almonds

Almonds are actually considered a seed and not a nut contrary to popular belief.  They are grown on trees and are considered part of the genus Prunus which also contains cherries, plums, and peaches.  But instead of having a soft, fleshy, and edible outer covering like these other fruits the almond is surrounded by a thick, leathery outer coat that is not edible.  There are two types of almonds known as the sweet almond and bitter almond.  Bitter almonds can contain anywhere from 4-9 mg of cyanide per almond [3] and have to be processed to remove the cyanide before eating them.  The almonds you get at the store are most likely grown in California and are sweet almonds which do not have the risk of cyanide poisoning.  Just as a side note the seeds of the Prunus genus (cherries, plums, peaches, apricots) all contain cyanide and should not be eaten.

Almonds are high in fat but a handful of them a day can have a number of positive effects on your overall health.  Almonds have been shown to increase good cholesterol "HDL" and lower bad cholesterol "LDL" reducing the risk of coronary artery disease [4,5].  They also lower the glycemic response to carbohydrate rich meals which can help lower the incidence of diabetes [6].  And they have also been shown to aid those in a weight loss reduction program [7].

Pomegranate

Pomegranate fruit is one of the most well known fruits for its superior health benefits.  This fruit contains hundreds of seeds inside of it.  It's the dark reddish-purplish pulp that surrounds each one of these seeds where pomegranate gets its wonderful health benefits.  Both the pulp and the seeds are consumed and are often made into a juice.

Pomegranate has a very high content of an antioxidant class called polyphenols which have been shown to reduce plaque formation in arteries, lower blood pressure, and have anti-inflammatory effects [8].  Pomegranate has also been shown to have an inhibitory effect on prostate cancer cells [9] and breast cancer cells [10].

A study done in 2008 actually showed that pomegranate juice had a higher overall antioxidant index than 11 other drinks tested.  And it contained 20% more total antioxidants than the next closest drink which was red wine [11].  So whether you buy the juice or the whole fruit pomegranate is definitely worth making a part of your regular diet.

Conclusion

You can see that different fruits and the seeds they contain can have dramatically different effects on the body.  While we purposely seek out and eat the seeds of pomegranate and almonds for their health benefits we tend to shy away from others such as apricots, cherries, and apples just to name a few because of the risk of cyanide poisoning.  For the most part mother nature has made it pretty easy to figure out which seeds to eat and which to avoid.  You'd have a pretty hard time chewing or swallowing a seed from peach whereas ingesting a few watermelon seeds is almost impossible to avoid unless you get the seedless watermelon.  What's important is to make sure you set aside those delectable yet devilish danishes, cookies, and cakes and opt for a variety of healthy fruits to satisfy that sweet tooth of yours.  You'll be glad you did and so will your doctor when you step on the scale at your next office visit.







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References:
1 Donald G. Barceloux. (2008). Medical Toxicology of Natural Substances: Foods, Fungi, Medicinal Herbs, Plants, and Venomous Animals. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. pp. 47. ISBN 9780471727613.
2 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health effects criteria document for cyanide. Office of Drinking Water, Washington, DC (1985).
3 Shragg TA, Albertson TE, Fisher CJ. Cyanide Poisoning After Bitter Almond Ingestion. West. J. Med. 1982 Jan. 136 (1):65-69.
4 Spiller GA, Jenkins DA, Bosello O, et al. Nuts and plasma lipids: an almond-based diet lowers LDL-C while preserving HDL-C. J Am Coll Nutr. 1998 Jun;17(3):285-90.
5 Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Marchie A, et al. Dose response of almonds on coronary heart disease risk factors: blood lipids, oxidized low-density lipoproteins, lipoprotein(a), homocysteine, and pulmonary nitric oxide: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial. Circulation. 2002 Sep 10;106(11):1327-32.
6 Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Josse AR, et al. Almonds decrease postprandial glycemia, insulinemia, and oxidative damage in healthy individuals. J Nutr. 2006 Dec;136(12):2987-92.
7 Wien MA, Sabaté JM, Iklé DN, Cole SE, Kandeel FR. Almonds vs complex carbohydrates in a weight reduction program. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Nov;27(11):1365-72.
8 Basu A, Penugonda K. Pomegranate juice: a heart-healthy fruit juice. Nutr Rev. 2009 Jan;67(1):49-56.
9 Gasmi J, Sanderson JT. Growth Inhibitory, Antiandrogenic, and Pro-apoptotic Effects of Punicic Acid in LNCaP Human Prostate Cancer Cells. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Nov 10.
10 Dai Z, Nair V, Khan M, Ciolino HP. Pomegranate extract inhibits the proliferation and viability of MMTV-Wnt-1 mouse mammary cancer stem cells in vitro. Oncol Rep. 2010 Oct;24(4):1087-91.
11 Seeram NP, Aviram M, Zhang Y, et al. Comparison of antioxidant potency of commonly consumed polyphenol-rich beverages in the United States. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Feb 27;56(4):1415-22.

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