Amygdalin. Vitamin B-17. Laetrile. For many people, the names are interchangeable.
But there are distinct differences.
Amygdalin is a natural substance that’s found in raw nuts like almonds and the seeds and kernels of many fruits, particularly apricots. It’s also present in lima beans, clover, sorghum and many other things. (You’ll find an extensive list of foods that contain amygdalin below.)
Vitamin B-17 is the name given this substance by Dr. Ernst T. Krebs Jr., the man who first identified amygdalin. He called it a food component, and food components that are natural, non-toxic, water-soluble and compatible with human metabolisms — like amygdalin — are called vitamins.
Laetrile is the concentrated, purified form of amygdalin developed for use in the laboratory and in cancer treatments.
Laetrile Therapy combines amygdalin with other factors to create a potent treatment that claims to fight cancer cells while helping to strengthen the body’s immune system.
(For the purposes of this article, we will use the term amygdalin, except where laetrile or Vitamin B-17 are appropriate.)
You’ve probably never heard of Jason Vale, a world-class arm wrestler — and three-time cancer survivor.
He’s also a convicted felon. In 2000, the FDA obtained a court injunction to stop Vale from selling apricot seeds. Four years later, he was convicted of criminal contempt of the injunction and sentenced to five years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Vale maintained apricot seeds helped him defeat cancer three times, including Askin’s Tumor, a rare form of Ewing’s Sarcoma; renal cell carcinoma; and a tumor in his kidney.
However, he ran afoul of the FDA because he was selling a concentrated form of the vitamin found in apricot seeds, known as laetrile, to other cancer patients via the Internet.
In 1998, the agency stated that it considered laetrile to be a “new drug,” and as such, was not approved for sale or importation.
Following undercover investigations by the FDA, Vale was alleged to have continued to sell and promote laetrile in violation of the consent decree. He was prosecuted for criminal contempt.
The U.S. government maintained that because Vale made therapeutic claims about his laetrile products, the apricot seeds are drugs and therefore require FDA approval before they can be sold or distributed within the United States.
Eliezer Ben-Joseph, one of the most prominent naturopaths in the U.S., said of laetrile, “It’s not a cure; there is no cure for cancer — but there are things that we can do that augment how metabolism works. These are chemicals that the body would use to detoxify or get rid of cancer.
“To make a law that says that the public cannot eat an apricot pit because they think it might keep people from going to regular cancer therapy, I think is a ludicrous jump in jurisdiction,” he said.
Laetrile is believed to fight cancer by targeting and killing cancer cells while building the immune system to fend off future outbreaks. It is theorized to use two different methods to accomplish these goals.
Theory: The first revolves around enzymes. Amygdalin is made up of glucose plus two potentially toxic substances — benzaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide. (Note: In the early days of laetrile research it was assumed that the cyanide was the major cancer cell-killing molecule, but now many researchers believe that it is the benzaldehyde that is the primary reason the cancer cell is killed.)
Healthy cells contain the enzyme rhodanese. Rhodanese is believed to protect the cells by neutralizing the benzaldehyde and cyanide in amygdalin, converting them to useful nutrient compounds, including thiocyanate, which is known as a natural regulator of blood pressure and also is involved in the production of Vitamin B-12.
However, it is believed that cancer cells do not have rhodanese. Instead, they have an enzyme called beta-glucosidase. Beta-glucosidase unlocks the benzaldehyde and cyanide from the glucose to create a targeted poison that kills the cancer cell.
There’s another theory regarding the way the body is believed to fight cancer that is related to laetrile through the power of a healthy immune system.
You are filled with billions of white blood cells — people normally produce about 100 billion new white blood cells a day. These cells attack and destroy anything that is harmful to your body. But cancer cells are theorized to be covered by a thin protein coating that carries a negative electrostatic charge. This charge is claimed to repel the negatively charged white blood cells.
Luckily, the pancreas emits enzymes that, in sufficient quantities, are claimed to “eat away this protective coating”, allowing the white blood cells to attack cancer. However, if the pancreas is weak or unhealthy, or if the cancer is growing too fast, the enzymes can’t keep up. That’s where laetrile comes in, where it is believed to work with pancreatic enzymes to fight cancer, while also strengthening the immune system.
One of the positive side effects that are claimed of laetrile therapy is that more Vitamin B-12 is made in the body.
During an interview with Dr. Antonio Jimenez, chief medical officer and founder of Hope4Cancer Institute in Baja California, and Cancun, Mexico, he stated that laetrile has several positive effects, including direct anticancer activity (from the cyanide and benzaldehyde described above), analgesic properties, and well-being enhancement.
Amygdalin is a common substance. It’s found in more than 1,200 foods, but primarily in the following:
Other things rich in amygdalin are millet grain and buckwheat grain. Bread made with these grains, however, generally do not contain a high percentage of millet or buckwheat, or else the bread would be too dense and hard.
Apricot seeds have the highest amount of amygdalin. The seeds of berry plants, such as red raspberries, black raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries are also rich in amygdalin.
Laetrile has been center stage among alternative cancer treatments and non-traditional medicine for decades. Government agencies have alternately described it as harmless, with nothing to offer patients beyond a positive placebo effect, and as dangerous, because of the cyanide that is part of its core components.
Advocates, on the other hand, point to a history of successful treatments, the lack of any proven toxic episodes, freedom of choice issues, and other factors as reasons why it should be legal and available.
Let’s take a look at some of the events in laetrile’s history that have led us to where we are today.
Amygdalin’s role as a food component and its observed ability to fight disease puts it under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA has long had a contentious relationship with laetrile and with the doctors and patients who want to use it. The following are some of the highlights — and lowlights.
The FDA prohibited the interstate shipment of amygdalin and laetrile in 1977. However, 27 U.S. states subsequently legalized the use of amygdalin.
While laetrile remains a banned substance in the U.S. for retailers to sell, it’s not illegal to possess or use. Also, it’s legal in Mexico, where quality-controlled laetrile production for medicinal purposes is still supported. Dr. Antonio Jimenez points out that anyone who comes to Mexico can take laetrile back to their home country with a prescription.
According to the FDA, a 1977 controlled, blinded trial of laetrile showed no more activity than a placebo. Subsequently, laetrile was tested on 14 tumor systems, reportedly without evidence of effectiveness. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center concluded that “laetrile showed no beneficial effects.”
It was this controversial conclusion that spurred Ralph Moss into action. You can read more about this compelling story below.
According to a 2015 systematic review by the Cochrane Collaboration, the claims that laetrile or amygdalin has beneficial effects for cancer patients aren’t currently supported by sound clinical data. The review added that “there is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion.”
In addition, the U.S. National Institutes of Health evaluated the evidence separately and concluded that clinical trials of amygdalin showed little or no effect against cancer. For example, a 1982 trial by the Mayo Clinic of 175 patients found that tumor size had increased in all but one patient. The authors reported that “the hazards of amygdalin therapy were evidenced in several patients by symptoms of cyanide toxicity or by blood cyanide levels approaching the lethal range.”
However, there were several problems with how the Mayo study was conducted. You can read more about that below.
In the 1970s, court cases in several states challenged the FDA's authority to restrict access to what they claimed was a potentially life-saving drug. More than 20 states passed laws making the use of Laetrile legal. But, after the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Rutherford, which established that interstate transport of the compound was illegal, usage fell off dramatically.
The FDA continues to seek jail sentences for vendors marketing laetrile for cancer treatment. For example, Jason Vale, a champion arm wrestler, and cancer survivor was sentenced on June 18, 2004, to 63 months in prison and three years of supervised release by a U.S. District Court after running afoul of the FDA for selling apricot seeds online as a cancer-fighting tool.
Two famous studies on laetrile at the Mayo Clinic claimed that laetrile was toxic and that some of the patients in the studies had cyanide poisoning. It should be noted that many of the people at the Mayo Clinic who did these studies had also participated in three Vitamin C studies to attempt to discredit a study done by two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling.
However, the Mayo Clinic did not follow standard American protocol and dosages for Laetrile Therapy. For example, if they had followed the standard laetrile diet, which is virtually the same thing as a “raw food” diet, the diet alone would have significantly extended the lives of the patients.
In addition, the National Institutes of Health, which funded the studies, did not allow an alternative treatment vendor to supply the proper laetrile for at least one of the studies, even though they offered to do so for free.
The Binzel Diet is similar to a typical vegan diet minus citrus fruits. The Binzel Diet comprises fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and vegetable proteins. The enzymes present in fresh non-citric fruits, such as apples, peaches and pears, and vegetables greatly contribute to good nutrition. Patients are urged to have lots of salads, fruits, whole grain foods like pasta and brown bread. The diet discourages sugar, fat, and anything that is animal or an animal by-product. This means abstinence from all kinds of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, and stress is placed on a high fiber diet. It is recommended that you give preference to fruits (i.e. seeds), grains, and nuts (e.g. almonds and macadamia) that are rich in laetrile.
Before you embark on a laetrile regimen (or any other integrative or alternative cancer treatment plan), be sure to talk it over with your physician or other medical professionals.
Whether called laetrile or amygdalin or Vitamin B-17, this natural substance has been shown to be a controversial alternative oncology treatment. Critics say it is at best ineffective and at worst potentially toxic. Advocates point to years of positive results and no known cases of cyanide toxicity.
Laetrile has been banned in the U.S., but it is administered legally in several clinics in Mexico as well as in Germany and parts of Asia, usually intravenously in high doses. As with all medical treatments, it is important to talk with your doctor or other health professional.