Poppy Seeds: Healthy, Beneficial Food or Dangerous Opiate?

Poppy seeds - Dr. Axe

The poppy plant (species name Papaver somniferum) has been valued for its ability to produce medicinal oil and seeds for thousands of years by civilizations around the world. The ancient Greeks and Romans even documented their use of poppy seeds as far back as 3,000 years ago.

Where are you most likely to come across poppy seeds today? Recipes that commonly include poppy seeds include lemon poppy muffins, salads made with poppyseed dressing, brown rice stir-fries, whole grain breads and pastries, and of course everything bagels.

Some of the benefits that poppy seeds offer include providing manganese, calcium, copper, zinc, iron, linoleic acid (and omega-6 fatty acid) and fiber. Even a small daily dose of poppy seed may help manage symptoms like constipation, dry skin, achy joints and weak bones.

What Are Poppy Seeds?

Poppy seeds are edible, tiny, kidney-shaped seeds that are harvested for use in cooking or as a source of poppy seed oil. They are most commonly black seeds but can also be white or deep blue. Where do poppy seeds come from? As the name implies, poppy seeds come from the poppy seed plant (Papaver somniferum), sometimes just called “poppies.”

Some refer to poppy seeds as oliseeds. Oliseeds are several species of seeds that are cultivated to yield oil that is isolated and extracted for various uses. Although poppy seed oil might not be a staple in many people’s kitchens, oil from the poppy seed plant does have a number of uses in the food manufacturing, soap, paint and varnish industries.

Although sap found on the surface of poppy seed plants also produces opiates that are used in the drug and pharmaceutical industries (more on this below), eating poppy seeds doesn’t have any psychological effects. Poppy seeds (papaver somniferum) get their flavor mostly from the compound called 2-Pentylfuran. They are usually harvested when they are ripe and dried if they are being been used in food manufacturing. The seeds also are harvested when their pods are immature and green if they are being used for opiates.


Poppy Seed Health Benefits

Poppy seeds have long been used to help manage a variety of health conditions, including: (1)

  • Asthma
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughs
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Vesicoenteric fistula (a condition in which the bowel and bladder are abnormally connected). Poppy seeds are used to diagnose vesicoenteric fistula when about 35–250 grams of poppy seed is mixed with a drink or yogurt, taken by mouth. Then urine is monitored for 48 hours thereafter.
  • Certain types of cancer

Poppy seeds are a decent source of nutrients, including manganese, calcium, phosphorus, zinc and iron. If we ate larger amounts of poppy seeds than most of us tend to (it’s rare to have more than one or two teaspoons or so at a time) then we’d really be consuming a good amount of essential nutrients.

Here are some of the top health benefits of poppy seeds:

1. Great Source of Manganese

Manganese is a nutrient that’s beneficial for preventing conditions like weak bones, osteoporosis, inflammation, painful joints (osteoarthritis), anemia and PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Just one tablespoon of poppy seed provides nearly 30 percent of your daily manganese needs. Manganese plays an important role in creating and activating multiple enzymes. Plus it has antioxidant effects and may protect mitochondria while limiting oxidative stress. (2)

2. Low in Carbs and Sugar but Provides Fiber

Like other seeds, such as chia and flax, poppy seeds provide fiber. Fiber is helpful for digestion and preventing constipation. If you eat a low-carb diet, such as the ketogenic diet that strictly limits carb consumption, then eating high-fiber foods is crucial for “staying regular” and supporting gut health. In addition to eating sources of fiber like vegetables (plus fruits, legumes and grains if you’re not eating low-carb), incorporating seeds and nuts is an easy way to boost overall nutrient and fiber intake.

3. Good Source of Healthy Fats (Omega-6s)

Poppy seeds are relatively high in linoleic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid. We often hear that omega-6 fats are “pro-inflammatory” and not as beneficial as omega-3s, but the truth is that we need both types of essential fatty acids. Linoleic acid is an unsaturated fatty acid found in a wide variety of plant glycosides, especially those with high oil content, such as poppy seed.

Consumption of linoleic acid in moderate amounts (this is key because very high consumption has not been shown to be beneficial) may have positive effects on heart health. For instance, it can help reduce blood cholesterol levels and prevent atherosclerosis. (3) However, for the most health benefits it’s not recommended that we consume high amounts of refined vegetable oils, which are very high in omega-6s. Rather, we should eat a variety of whole foods that provide different types of fats (like seeds, nuts, meat, eggs, olive oil, etc.)

4. Provides Calcium, Phosphorus and Magnesium

Eating poppy seeds is a good way to acquire essential minerals that help keep bones strong, including calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.

Additionally, poppy seeds provide a good dose of copper that is needed to maintain nerve, bone and metabolic health. They also have a decent amount of zinc and iron, which are important for adrenal health, prevention of anemia, skin health and more.

5. Nourishes Skin

Poppy seed milk and oil are known for hydrating and healing skin. These products may be helpful for managing eczema and inflammation of the skin, itchiness, dryness, peeling and dandruff. (4) The best way to use poppy seeds on your skin is to apply poppy oil or paste to the affected area, ideally with other helpful ingredients like almond oil, essential oils or honey.

Poppy seeds - Dr. Axe

Nutrition Facts

One tablespoon of poppy seeds (about nine grams) contains approximately (5)

  • 45.9 calories
  • 2.5 grams carbohydrates
  • 1.6 grams protein
  • 3.6 grams fat
  • 1.7 grams fiber
  • 0.6 milligram manganese (29 percent DV)
  • 126 milligrams calcium (13 percent DV)
  • 30.4 milligrams magnesium (8 percent DV)
  • 76.1 milligrams phosphorus (8 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligram copper (7 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligram thiamine (5 percent DV)
  • 0.9 milligram iron (5 percent DV)
  • 0.7 milligram zinc (5 percent DV)

In addition, poppy seeds also contain some vitamin E, folate, choline, potassium and selenium.

Studies show that consuming even high amounts of poppy seeds, between 35–250 grams at one time (the equivalent of three to eight tablespoons), is safe for most adults. However, larger quantities of poppy seed may cause digestive issues due to blocking the bowels.

Uses in Ayurveda, TCM and Traditional Medicine

Ancient civilizations that are known to have grown poppy flowers and poppy seeds include the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Minoans and Sumerians. Historians believe that from approximately 2700 to 1450 BC, poppy plants were grown by Minoans for their beneficial seeds, milk, opium and honey. Poppies were given to fussy babies in order to calm them down and help with sleep. In ancient Egypt, poppy seeds were associated with the harvesting season, fertility and birth. An Egyptian papyrus scroll written in 1550 BC even lists poppies as a natural sedative. (6) In Sumeria, poppy flowers were called “joy plant” for their sedative and euphoric properties.

Poppy seeds have deep roots in Central and Eastern Europe, where they have been used for centuries to make whole or ground poppy seed meal that’s a common ingredient in pastries and breads. A traditional dessert in Poland called makowiec (Ma-KOH-viets) calls for poppy seeds to be added to the filling, while in Hungry poppy seed rolls known as Beigli are a favorite sweet snack.

According to Ayurvedic medicine, poppy seeds can serve as a natural sedative and sleep aid. They are used to make a calming beverage by steeping the seeds with other healing ingredients, like coconut powder, cumin, nutmeg, turmeric and ghee. It’s believed that poppy seeds help induce relaxation and promote restful sleep because of their trace amount of narcotics, although this hasn’t been proven. (7) Poppy seeds are said to increase cold, oily and heavy qualities, so they are best suited for Pita and Vata doshas. In addition to their calming quality, they are valued for nourishing the reproductive organs, protecting bones and skin, soothing tense muscles, clearing the nasal passageways, and relieving burning and constipation.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, black seeds are believed to help support the lungs, large intestines and kidneys. Poppies (or poppy capsules that are sometimes used) have sour and astringent properties. That is why they are utilized to help with breathing, digestion and relieving pain. (8) Crushed, dried poppy capsules can be found at some Asian markets and specialty stores. They are typically taken in doses between three and 10 grams.

Poppy Seeds vs. Hemp Seeds vs. Mustard Seeds

  • Hemp seeds, which don’t cause any psychotropic reactions but do provide significant health benefits, are loved for their high protein content and ability to improve digestion, balance hormones and support a healthy metabolism.
  • Hemp seeds, or hemp hearts, are the seeds of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa). They are rich in gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA), a necessary building block for some prostaglandins — hormone-like chemicals in the body that help smooth muscle functions, control inflammation and regulate body temperature. Hemp has an excellent 3:1 balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is considered a complete protein because it contains all 20 amino acids.
  • Studies show hemp seeds and hemp seed oil can be helpful in relieving rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, work as a natural appetite suppressant due to their fiber and protein, nourish skin and hair, and support gut health by feeding probiotics in the digestive system.
  • Hemp and poppy seeds offer similar nutrients. However, gram for gram, hemp is a bit higher in protein, manganese, vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and iron. Like poppy seeds or chia seeds, hemp seeds can be added to recipes like granola, smoothies, oatmeal, muffins, etc.
  • Mustard seeds, which are used to grow mustard greens and make mustard oil, contain chemicals that act as natural antifungal and antibacterial agents. They help protect against infections. Mustard oil is extracted by cold compression of mustard seeds, while mustard essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of mustard seeds soaked in water. Mustard seeds have a distinctive and rather pungent taste, similar to “spicy” foods like radish, horseradish or wasabi.
  • Mustard seeds contain high levels of vitamin E, which helps improve skin health and can protect skin against free radical damage from ultraviolet light. Mustard seed oil is also high in omega-3 fatty acids and helps fight inflammation. This provides some relief for those with rheumatism, arthritis, sprains and aches.
  • Mustard seeds are unique compared to other seeds because they contain two compounds that form allyl isothiocyanate or normal isothiocyanate, which are considered toxic compounds when ingested in high amounts. Because of this, bottles of pure mustard oil sold in the U.S. must include the warning “for external use only,” although average quantities of mustard seeds/mustard greens are still safe and healthy to consume.

Poppy Seeds vs. Chia Seeds vs. Sesame Seeds

  • Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica) are another type of tiny black or white seed that is highly nutritious and associated with many benefits, such as decreasing appetite, reducing constipation, balancing blood sugar levels and supporting heart health. In fact, although they have been consumed for centuries in South America, chia seeds have recently become one of the most popular and trendy superfoods in the health community.
  • Like poppy seeds, chia seeds provide many nutrients, including fiber, protein, manganese, phosphorus and calcium, along with plenty of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids, boasting even more omega-3s per gram than salmon.
  • Compared to poppy seeds, chia seeds are more widely consumed for their high fiber content, although the two seeds provide similar amounts per tablespoon serving (chia seeds have slightly more). The high amount of dietary fiber found in chia seeds, and their ability to absorb water and form a gel, aids in digestion, preventing constipation and reducing other digestive problems.
  • Sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum) and poppy seeds are often used in the same types of recipes, such as breads, granolas, etc. Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed and boasts a rich, nutty flavor. The seeds contain about 50 percent to 60 percent of a fatty oil that is characterized by two beneficial members of the lignan family: sesamin and sesamolin.
  •  Sesame seeds are rich in linoleic and oleic acids, copper, manganese, calcium, magnesium, and iron, plus small amounts of amino acids like lysine, tryptophan and methionine. Sesame is a bit lower in fiber than poppies, providing just over a gram per tablespoon.

Relationship with Opium

You may have heard that eating poppy seeds can introduce opiates (such as heroin, morphine and codeine) into your body. This is actually true. In fact, if you have an upcoming drug test, it’s recommended that you avoid eating poppy seeds beforehand just to be safe. (9) For example, federal prisons do not allow prisoners to eat poppy seeds and require prisoners to sign a form agreeing to abstain from eating poppy seed products while taking authorized leaves of absence.

Opium is considered a highly addictive narcotic. It has sedative, tranquilizing, depressant, soporific, anesthetic and analgesic effects. While eating poppy seeds can potentially cause you to consume trace amounts of opiates, they don’t actually make you feel high.

The outer pod/surface of poppy seeds (papaver somniferum) has been found to produce sap that contains opiates. The plant that produces poppy seeds is the same one that is used to make heroin and morphine. Poppy seeds themselves only have trace amounts of opiates, but the sap can be concentrated so that it has stronger effects.

When poppy seed is soaked in water to make “poppy seed tea,” some opiates can seep into the water and cause a number of side effects when consumed. (10) However, a very high quantity of seeds would need to be used to make a poppy tea that is strong enough to have psychological effects — somewhere around 300–400 grams depending on the levels of opiates in different types of seeds.

How much poppy seeds would you need to consume to fail a drug test? Having poppy seeds does not automatically mean you will fail a drug test. On average, poppy seeds contain between 0.5 to 10 micrograms of morphine per gram. Compare this to a standard dose of medically prescribed morphine, which contains between 5,000 to 30,000 micrograms. You would need to consume a very large amount of poppy seeds to consume considerable amounts of opiates.

Most drug tests today pick up on levels of opiates in urine that are greater than 2,000 to 3,000 ng/ml, so it’s possible they could detect opiates from normal amounts of poppy seeds found in foods. Still, it’s not likely or a guarantee. How long do poppy seeds stay in your system? Opiates  can be found in urine samples for as long as two days after eating poppy seeds. If you were to eat a large quantity of poppy seeds, opiates may be traceable up to 60 hours later. Recently, hair analysis tests have been used more to test for heroin. These are considered more accurate and less likely to lead to “false positives,” such as due to opiates from poppy seed. (11)

Where to Find and How to Use

Where can you buy poppy seeds? Poppy seeds should be available in large grocery stores, health store foods (look in the “bulk bin” section where nuts and seeds are  often sold), specialty markets and online.

Poppy seeds are pretty tasteless until roasted, when they take on a nutty flavor similar to sesame seeds. They pair well with flavors including garlic, onion, lemon or orange zest, rum, vanilla, raisins, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, and blanched almonds or walnuts. You can use them just like you would sesame seeds. Ideas for adding poppy seeds to your diet include: (12)

  • Making poppy seed dressing.
  • Topping oatmeal or yogurt with mixed nuts and seeds, including a teaspoon or so of poppy seeds.
  • Making gluten-free lemon poppyseed muffins.
  • Adding poppy seeds to homemade bread, buns or other baked goods. Try making healthier versions of your favorite recipes using flours like almond or coconut flour.
  • Making homemade granola or granola bars. Try grain-free granola with a mix of nuts, seeds and honey.
  • Adding poppy seeds to chicken, tuna or salmon salad.

All nuts and seeds contain some “antinutrients” that may block absorption of some of their nutrients. Therefore, it’s ideal to soak the nuts/seeds before eating them since this reduces antinutrient content. Another option is to grind seeds in a coffee grinder or blender to break down the hard outer shells before eating them. When pulverized, ground seeds can be used as a flour in most gluten-free recipes, like pancakes, muffins, breads and even pastas. Seeds are sensitive to sunlight and heat, so always store them in a sealed, glass container in your refrigerator or freezer to keep their fatty acids from becoming rancid.

In some countries, you’ll find poppy seed paste is available commercially in tubes or cans. Normally, these pastes are used in dessert-making and contain a mixture of poppy seed, sugar, water and an emulsifier to keep the paste from separating. In the U.S., you can find poppy seed pastes under brand names like Solo and American Almond. These pastes are typically used like jam or almond paste to make filling for cakes, pastries, croissants, etc.

How can you grow poppy seeds at home? Due to their complicated history as a source of opiates, it’s actually illegal to grow poppies in the United States. However, some people still choose to plant poppy flowers (such as species (P. somniferum, P. paeoniflorum and P. rhoeas) in their gardens because poppies produce nice-looking, pink or red flowers.

Poppy Seed Recipes

Try adding a tablespoon or more of poppy seeds to the healthy recipes below:

Risks and Side Effects

Just like with other seeds and nuts, in some people, eating poppy seed can cause allergic reactions. This is not very common, especially compared to allergies in response to peanuts or almonds, but it is possible. You’re most likely to be allergic to poppy seed if you also have allergic reactions to hazelnut, rye grain, kiwi, sesame or buckwheat.

While most people can eat food quantities of poppy seed with no problem, you should discuss using larger medicinal amounts with your doctor if you have a history of bowel-related problems, allergies or you’re pregnant/breastfeeding.

Final Thoughts

  • Poppy seeds (papaver somniferum) are small black/white/blue seeds that provide manganese, calcium, copper, zinc, iron, linoleic acid (and omega-6 fatty acid) and fiber.
  • They are believed to have natural sedative effects and may help support restful sleep. While eating poppy seeds won’t get you high, the poppy seed plant is also used to make opiates (including heroin and morphine). The seeds themselves have very trace amounts of opiates, although sometimes they can cause false positives on drug tests.
  • Poppy seeds can be added to granola, dressing, yogurt, chicken salads and baked goods. They may help relieve constipation, support bone health, and reduce coughs.

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