John Richardson thought he’d found a cure for cancer.
The San Francisco Bay Area doctor had been giving patients a therapy that is essentially a chemical compound found in apricot kernels and known by several names — laetrile, amygdalin, vitamin B17. Richardson had been told it could attack tumors, naturally and precisely. It can also convert into potentially poisonous amounts of cyanide when eaten. But Richardson was a true believer.
“Yes, the evidence that Vitamin B17 is nature’s control for cancer is quite overwhelming,” he wrote in his book. “So the next time you hear an official spokesman for orthodox medicine proclaim that there is none, you might tell him that such a statement is a ‘self-evident absurdity’ and suggest that he do his homework before posing as an expert.”
Less convinced were the police who, on June 2, 1972, barged into Richardson’s clinic and jailed him on charges of medical quackery. He eventually lost his medical license and was charged with smuggling laetrile, an illegal drug, into the country.
Now, three decades after Richardson’s death, his son, John Richardson Jr., is no stranger to apricot seeds. Through Apricot Power, his thriving e-commerce store, he sells bitter seeds ($32.99 for 1,500), seed extract-based tablets (up to $97.99 a bottle), and B17-infused anti-aging cream ($49.99). Recipes for apricot-seed pesto, egg nog, and marzipan offer a “delicious and easy” way to work the supposed superfood into your diet, and videos explain why the site’s mission is to “get B17 into every body!” Though Richardson Jr. won’t reveal revenue numbers, he says his family operation of around 10 employees has served “thousands” of customers all over the world since it launched in 1999.
But there’s a key difference between his business and his father’s, Richardson Jr. told me: “We don’t mention the C-word in our company.” Cancer, that is. If a customer review on Apricot Power’s website even mentions the term, the company leaves a comment pointing out that it doesn’t make any disease or illness-related claims about its products. Legally, it can’t: The FDA prohibits companies from selling laetrile, under any name, as a cancer treatment, because studies have found it to be at best ineffective, and at worst toxic.
Of course, that doesn’t stop dozens of internet entrepreneurs from exploiting regulatory loopholes to sell apricot seeds and B17 tablets, no claims attached — and profiting off the efforts of believers who spread the “truth” about them far and wide. In laetrile’s heyday in 1981, a doctor called it “the slickest, most sophisticated, and certainly the most remunerative cancer quack promotion in medical history.” Three decades later, the internet has only spread the gospel, creating an unstoppable, hydra-headed ecosystem of buyers and sellers.
If you’ve never heard that apricot kernels kill and prevent cancer, that’s because the government doesn’t want you to, proponents say. Cancer, according to them, arises from the lack of a nutrient they call vitamin B17, so it follows that ingesting that nutrient would fight the disease. But regulators, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors can’t patent and profit from a natural substance. So they keep it off the market and peddle toxic, invasive, costly, and unnatural chemotherapy and drugs at patients’ expense.
Or so the theory goes. “Vitamin B17 Is Banned Because It Treats Cancer!” a post on the site Healthy Food House proclaims; it has been liked, commented on, and shared on Facebook more than 47,000 times since September, according to the social media–tracking tool CrowdTangle. A post about “the real story of laetrile,” published on a site called The Truth About Cancer, has gotten more than 44,000 likes, comments, and shares since June 2015.
Yin Ling Woo, a gynecological oncologist, recently had to decline when three cancer patients asked her to inject them with liquid B17 vials. “They buy it off the internet, it arrives, they have to get someone to administer it,” said Woo, who works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Over the last year and a half, public health agencies in the European Union, Canada, and Dubai have issued warnings about apricot kernels and kernel-derived supplements. Since Australia and New Zealand outright blocked the sale of raw kernels in late 2015, retailers have been fined for continuing to sell them. In April, the FDA fired off warning letters to the sellers of more than 65 illegal cancer treatments, including whole apricots and vitamin B17. All the regulators cite the internet as the main source of the problem. “Due to the nature of online marketing, some companies attempting to avoid compliance with FDA law simply start new websites and rename fraudulent products,” an FDA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email.
In other words, the FDA lacks the power to systematically fix the underlying issue. It can go after apricot kernels advertised as a cancer cure. But it can’t crack down when they’re advertised as supplements or plain old seeds. Nor can it control the Facebook posts, YouTube videos, blogs, and tweets that perpetuate the myth.
And when the FDA calls out problematic claims, all a company has to do to escape scrutiny is stop using the phrases in question. “But the misimpression that their product is an effective cancer cure will remain out there, uncorrected, in the public eye,” said Patti Zettler, an associate professor at Georgia State University’s law school and a former associate chief counsel at the FDA.
It’s no coincidence that B17 is enjoying a second life online, at this moment in time. The internet is rife with misinformation about science and health, and the nutritional supplements business — as part of the larger “wellness” industry — is worth billions. Meanwhile, cancer remains a little understood disease that causes nearly 1 in 6 deaths worldwide. So in a way, it’s comforting and intuitive to blame a fixable vitamin deficiency. It’s also wrong.
Felicity Corbin-Wheeler of Jersey, an island south of England, credits intravenous infusions of B17 and a strict diet with shrinking her pancreatic cancer in 2003. She refused chemotherapy, which aligns with her belief that the “Western diet has been so hijacked by processed foods, sugars, fats, and salts.”
“I’m all for the natural things,” she said, “that we get back to a simple life.”
A successful salesperson must buy into what they’re selling, and Richardson Jr. is all in. Growing up in the Bay Area suburb of Orinda, he and his seven siblings weren’t fed sugar or processed wheat, an abstention he keeps up to this day. He says he started eating apricot seeds for his health at age 5. Now 52, he’s up to 40 a day.
The seeds contain amygdalin, a compound also found in apple seeds and almonds. In the 1950s, Ernst T. Krebs Jr., a self-described doctor and biochemist with no medical degree, patented a purified form of amygdalin that he called “laetrile.” He also promoted it as “vitamin B17,” although it’s not an officially recognized vitamin.
In 1971, Krebs Jr. shared with the elder Richardson his theory of how this nutrient could stop cancer growth. As Richardson later summarized: “[N]ature’s mechanism will not work if one fails to eat the foods that contain this necessary vitamin, which is exactly what has happened to modern man, whose food supply has become further and further removed from the natural state.”
In Richardson’s day, “laetrilists” were just as controversial as the anti-vaccine movement is today. In the 1960s, the FDA banned laetrile and reported that there was no evidence it treated cancer. But over the next decade, more than 70,000 Americans took it anyway. Many of them crossed into Mexico for injections denied by their stateside doctors. Actor Steve McQueen secretly traveled to Baja in 1980 to receive laetrile, among other alternative remedies, for an advanced lung cancer. He died months later. In the mid-’70s, a scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center performed experiments that he said showed laetrile helped reduce tumors in mice. A media relations staffer then leaked the data, claiming that hospital executives had sought to cover up and discredit it. He’s been making that claim ever since, including in the 2014 documentary Second Opinion (“for the conspiracy-minded only,” the Los Angeles Times wrote), and now charges cancer patients $500 for hourlong phone consultations.
When the elder Richardson was arrested in 1972 (on charges that were dropped), it prompted his fellow members of the John Birch Society, the far-right conspiracist group of the era, to start a lobbying group to legalize laetrile. Later, Richardson was fined $20,000 and placed on probation on charges of conspiracy to smuggle laetrile from Mexico to the US. Indictments against him and 18 other accused promoters noted that he had deposited $2.5 million in his bank account over two years.
Even so, Richardson Jr. remembers his father, who died in 1988, as “very principled, very honest, and very moral,” and keeps a picture of him over his desk. “There’s still people that contact me and tell me what a wonderful man he was and what a wonderful doctor he was,” he said.
After long legal battles, the FDA’s laetrile ban ultimately took effect in 1987. In 1999, Richardson Jr. started Apricot Power as an online-only store, but it’s branched out to health food shops over the last five years to meet customer demand. The company sources apricots from its farm and others in California, removes the flesh, air-dries the pits at the center, cracks them open, and sells the seeds inside.
“A lot of the foods, the amygdalin’s been cooked out of it,” said Richardson Jr., who also operates a real estate firm and a restaurant. “And my dad believed a normal, healthy person should have 100 milligrams a day of amygdalin. That’s been our company motto since the beginning, is just getting amygdalin back into every body.”
It took me no more than a few seconds to find apricot seeds online. A Google search led me to Amazon, where a European vendor was selling a 1-pound bag for $19.99 with this caveat: “We do not ‘treat’, or aim to ‘cure’ any disease.” Still, its customers leave reviews like “Raw Apricot Kernels help to stop Cancer in its tracks” and “I expect no miracles, but I don’t want to die from chemotherapy.” The seeds turned out to be chewy and tongue-curlingly bitter, with a long and unpleasant aftertaste.
Amazon’s algorithm recommended that I also buy the book that’s the bible of this movement: World Without Cancer: The Story of Vitamin B17. First published in 1974 and now in its 24th printing, it’s by G. Edward Griffin, who has no scientific training, denies HIV, and pushes Sept. 11 conspiracy theories.
I tried to interview more than 35 e-commerce shops that sell seeds or supplements labeled as laetrile, amygdalin, or B17. Many declined to talk or never got back to me. A man at Raw Foods and Vitamins turned me down, explaining, “The FDA and the government agencies have gone wild, there’s so much money in Big Pharma. … As soon as there’s a little publicity, they’ll be all over you.” He did, however, text me pro-laetrile books and websites to look up.
Others were more open. Danny Hesman, who runs B17 USA full-time out of Los Angeles, said he has 5,000 repeat customers. “I do tell people it’s not a magic pill,” he said. But like some other vendors, he’s had a personal experience with cancer — in his case, a friend who died from it. “I got a front-row seat to the suffering he went through with modern medicine,” he said. “I know these oncologists, I spoke to their team, they did everything. It’s almost career suicide for professionals to even consider alternative therapies, which leaves [B17] in that fringe zone you see when you google ‘vitamin B17.’ I wish there were some more professionals that would really work on that.”
Many vendors, especially those in the US, repeatedly emphasized that they weren’t claiming to cure, treat, or prevent anything, as if the FDA were listening over the phone. But Our Father’s Farm in Ontario, Canada, sells kernels that “may help with cancer prevention and symptoms.” Vision B Seventeen in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, claims to have “been successfully treating cancer and other degenerative diseases for more than 12 years now.”
Regulators have tried to squash these kinds of vendors. Jason Vale, a professional arm wrestler in New York City, sold seeds as a cure on his website, Apricots From God, because he believed they’d healed his kidney cancer. He also spammed people with millions of email ads. But in 2003, Vale was sentenced to five years in prison for criminal contempt of a court injunction sought by the FDA to stop him selling.
B17 merchants may have been deterred by his conviction, but not defeated. Until recently, Oxygen Health Systems allegedly told customers, “Laetrile (i.e. Vitamin B17) therapy is one of the most popular and best known alternative cancer treatments.” This spring, the FDA slammed Oxygen with a warning letter for making that and other unsupported health claims. According to the agency, which sent similar warnings to 13 other businesses, Oxygen had also illegally described vitamin C, the fruit graviola, and flax seed oil as cancer therapies.
Owner Michael Carroll said by phone that many of his products personally helped him fight off non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He scrubbed the language targeted by the FDA. But he didn’t seem too worried that his business would take a hit, or that his promises could have harmed someone.
“We’re continuing to work to make the best corrections to make our website as blah as possible, so consumers remain uneducated,” said Carroll, who lives near Chicago. When we spoke in early May, Oxygen was still selling B17 bottles for up to $97; they’ve since been taken down.
But you can still get them from Amygdalin Supply. Call to place an order and you might chat, as I did, with customer service rep Carlos Olguin in Guadalajara, Mexico. I asked him if, in his opinion, what he was selling could really treat cancer. His customers, he replied, were all the proof he needed.
“If you go to a store and buy a product and the product doesn’t work for you, would you buy again?” he asked. “Of course not, because the product does not work. That’s the thing I see. The same people who buy are the same people who are going to buy next and next and next.”
Sandi Rog, a novelist outside Denver, Colorado, says that B17 saved her and can save others, too. She spreads the message on her blog, I Beat Cancer with Vitamin B17, and in three YouTube videos with a total of more than 956,000 views.
When Rog was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s T-cell lymphoma in late 2010, doctors put her through chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant in an attempt to reinvigorate her immune system, she said. But tumors kept popping up. After a naturopathic doctor gave her dozens of supplements, she eventually narrowed them down to a regimen of juicing, pancreatic enzymes, and B17, which she began reading about and ordering online. She also stopped taking her prescribed immunosuppressant drugs. By the end of 2012, she said, the tumors were gone and she was in remission.
“All I know is I’m cancer-free,” she said, “and it’s because of this.”
Catherine Fox found Rog’s videos “very impressive” when she started researching B17 as a preventative measure against cancer. Her parents, five aunts, and three uncles have all died of various cancers, she says. Then, about three years ago, she felt a lump in her breast — the moment she’d been dreading. So she started taking kernels. That’s likely why, she thinks, the lump ended up being harmless.
“It seemed to just go down and go away,” said Fox, who lives in Kells, Ireland, and, just to be safe, still eats two seeds every morning.
But Liz Beggs says that these stories offer a sense of false hope that harms people like her late niece, Charlene Campbell.
Campbell had a daughter who, not long after she was born, developed a rare, aggressive brain cancer and died. More than five years later, Campbell developed cancer, too, in her breast. Having watched her daughter undergo chemotherapy and radiation, she was determined to avoid them herself. So she started juicing, eating an all-vegetarian diet, and ordering cannabis oil and apricot seeds online. “She said, ‘This is my journey, it’s my body, I have to do it on my own,’” recalled Beggs, who lives in Northern Ireland. “‘You’re either with me or against me.’”
Beggs understood why Campbell distrusted conventional therapies, but “at the same time, we were so fearful,” she said. Campbell’s tumor kept growing until she finally agreed to have a mastectomy. Then new tumors sprouted in her liver and spine.
Campbell died in October 2015, soon after her 33rd birthday. By the end, she was up to 40 apricot kernels a day, her aunt said.
“It makes me so angry because people are being ripped off,” Beggs said. “That fear that engulfs a person when they’re diagnosed with cancer, they want to hold on to something that’s positive, not the medical route. They want to hold on to this sick holistic path of believing in kernel seeds and whatever else across the internet.”
Promoters of this all-natural cure can’t agree on one name for it — amygdalin, laetrile, Laetrile with a capital L, B17? Nor do they agree on how much to take and how often. Nor is there a way to ensure that the many seeds, pills, powders, and liquids in which it can take form are chemically consistent. All these variables make it hard to study its supposedly wondrous effects.
A 2015 review looked at the available studies of laetrile and amygdalin in humans and found “no reliable evidence” that they could cure cancer. On the whole, it concluded, the chances of bad side effects made the risks “unambiguously negative.”
In 1982, the Mayo Clinic put 178 cancer patients on laetrile, enzymes, vitamins, and a restricted diet, a regimen based on several laetrile doctors’ recommendations. When it came to getting cured, seeing their symptoms improve or disease stabilize, or living longer, they didn’t substantially improve. On average, they survived less than five months after starting treatment.
“I do remember some of the patients wanting it to be continued, believing it was working even though their tumor had clearly grown, they had gotten weaker and clearly more sick,” said Gregory Sarna, a study co-author who was a UCLA oncologist at the time. “That did not dissuade some of them from their belief that it was working.”
Several patients also showed signs of poisoning, like nausea and vomiting, and blood levels of cyanide known to be fatal.
It doesn’t take much. More than three small kernels, or less than half a large one, can be unsafe for adults, according to a report for the European Food Safety Authority. Even one small kernel can be toxic for toddlers. From 2000 to 2004, there were reports of 260 children poisoned by kernels in Turkey, where they are a common snack. One 2-year-old girl was severely poisoned and died after she ate 10 seeds. Laetrile fans, however, tend to promote much higher doses: One blogger cites World Without Cancer’s recommendation of 3 to 5 seeds per waking hour to treat cancer, and 7 to 10 a day to prevent it.
None of these contradictions faze consumers, who say scientists and doctors design studies to fail. They question whether people have really gotten sick or died from apricot kernels — and if they did, they probably took way too much. (“I never had a bad experience,” said Elif Ercanli, who grew up eating seeds in Istanbul, Turkey.) The most they’ll admit to is a bad side effect here or there. Rog said she once took nine in a 12-hour span and “my blood pressure crashed so low, I was in bed, I had tingling in my fingers and toes.”
When I asked people to explain how amygdalin works, they paraphrased, or told me to look up, World Without Cancer. According to Griffin, when amygdalin dissolves in body fluids and produces hydrogen cyanide, the cyanide only goes after cancer cells because of a special enzyme they contain that’s vulnerable to attack.
That explanation doesn’t make sense to Sarna, who is now an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He points out that cancer cells differ even within a single tumor — which is usually why when a treatment destroys some cells, others remain untouched. “To say [one enzyme] is a general characteristic of cancer would need a study of hundreds of thousands of fresh cancers, all different cancers,” he said. “I’ve never seen that done.”
Even if there were one magical mechanism that unlocked the cure to cancer, Wendy Chen, a breast oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, takes offense at the notion that physicians would cover it up.
“There’s no doctor in the world who doesn’t want to help their patient get better,” she said. “I never quite understood why there’s this common conspiracy theory that doctors or pharmaceutical companies would have an interest in hiding or suppressing something that works.”
Nevertheless, Griffin’s theories still light up Facebook groups like “Cancer! Is B17 the cure?” Brandon Clark, who says apricot seeds and B17 tablets got rid of a skin cancer on his nose, moderates the 3,000-person group. When he started contributing, he read B17 books and talked to B17-prescribing doctors “to make sure people had the best information possible.” Clark, who lives near Tacoma, Washington, prefers to share that research on Facebook because it’s “much more popular than Twitter and Myspace and anything else,” he said. “I felt like I could reach more people.”
He’s not wrong.
“They’re preying on people who are vulnerable and ill,” Beggs said of people like Clark. “It’s just so not right. It makes me angry. They’re being brainwashed. Charlene’s proof of that.”
Apricot kernel devotees are fond of a certain Bible verse, Genesis 1:29: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’” There is an intuitive appeal to this implicit idea, that a higher force designed a natural substance to fight off a devastating and inexplicable disease.
Cancer kills 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women in the US. And surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can sound frightening on their own, since they involve cutting open the body and flooding it with drugs and X-rays. The side effects range from unpleasant to downright unbearable.
So there has always been an appetite, to some degree, for alternative therapies. And because of the enormous power of placebos, people often do feel better after taking them. In 1979, when the Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill cancer patients did not have the right to access laetrile, it noted that entrepreneurs had long hawked cancer cures like “liniments of turpentine, mustard, oil, eggs, and ammonia; peat moss; arrangements of colored floodlamps; pastes made from glycerin and limburger cheese; mineral tablets; and ‘Fountain of Youth’ mixtures of spices, oil, and suet.”
But in 2017, once-fringe “natural” remedies are no longer distinct from the mainstream obsession with wellness, now a $3.7 trillion industry spanning organic food, yoga, meditation apps, anti-aging lotions — and dietary supplements. Lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow and alt-right fearmonger Alex Jones peddle silver nanoparticles and obscure mushrooms. In addition to being taken by 150 million people in the US, supplements are barely regulated, can contain anything, aren’t proven to help health, and send at least 20,000 Americans to the emergency room annually.
“The fact there is a resurgence of interest in selling and utilization of what is essentially an ineffective treatment is concerning, and it points to general problems with the supplement market,” said Ameet Sarpatwari, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, of B17. “The amount of money being spent out there in supplements is huge. You would think that it should be more well-regulated than it is.”
The wellness industrial complex is built upon vague pronouncements and falsehoods about how nutrition and bodies work, like the (unsupported) myth that genetically modified food is unsafe to eat. But if you buy into that, then perhaps it’s not so crazy to also believe that, say, the Hunza, an indigenous group in northern Pakistan, are cancer-free thanks to their apricot-heavy diet. (According to anthropologists, there are no credible studies to support the claim, which is central to the B17 ideology.)
As the internet breathes new life into health myths, it complicates the relationship between patients and doctors. No longer are physicians the main or exclusive source of medical information when people can Google a remedy, buy it on Amazon, and tell their Facebook friends about it.
So when cancer patients get excited about laetrile, or any other alternative therapy, doctors must balance the evidence, or lack thereof, with the desperation of people often on the verge of death. “People need control over something that they cannot control, and that is very, very frustrating, and I sense it with every person I treat,” said Don Dizon, clinical co-director of gynecologic oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and a spokesperson for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
“Natural,” though, does not mean “safe.” Toxins, cyanide included, abound in the natural world. “All that matters is what are the benefits and harms, what is known for certain and what is merely unknown,” said Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University, by email.
One patient of Prasad’s wanted to try high doses of vitamin C, but resisted radiation therapy because it seemed “unnatural.” “Of course,” Prasad noted, “both vitamin C and radiation are naturally occurring, and both high dose [vitamin C] and a radiation machine are a human manipulation of something natural, so I wasn’t sure there is a difference.”
Dizon isn’t always confident that chemotherapy will work, particularly in people whose cancer has returned, so he encourages some of them to push back. He’s even seen some tumors shrink after patients have taken natural remedies — and he’s accepted that he can’t explain why. Sometimes, doctors say, a person may not actually have cancer in the first place, due to an incorrect diagnosis or misinterpreted biopsy. Or tumors can shrink due to other therapies that a patient has forgotten about or hasn’t revealed.
Regardless, a couple moving anecdotes aren’t license to recommend an unproven remedy. “That would be wrong, because that’s not data,” Dizon said. “That’s not the same thing as saying, ‘Your mom has ovarian cancer. If she’s taking treatment, she has a 30% chance of cure and an 80% chance of going quite some time, even maybe years, before her cancer comes back.’”
With alternative therapies, the success stories that people cling to tend to be more isolated than they think. “You’re not hearing the other side of that — the patients who took it and died within weeks or whose cancers really grew,” he said.
Vitamin B17, by any name, will never disappear. Its story by now has taken on mythical proportions that cannot be censored.
New advances in cancer treatment may one day make apricot seeds obsolete. But until — even if — all these therapies become the new and highly successful standard of care, some segment of laetrile believers will continue to buy in.
At Apricot Power, Richardson Jr. is busy rolling out products such as chocolate bars with chopped-up apricot seeds. (“What a tasty way to get natural B17 in your diet!” the website proclaims.)
What would his father think of all this? He’d be happy, Richardson Jr. answered, because he predicted that someday “people would discover that nutrition was the answer to healthy living.” He added, “Lots of people believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ●
This story has been updated to state that Felicity Corbin-Wheeler received B17 through intravenous therapy. An earlier version of this story misstated the method by which she received it.