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 seeds have long been used to help manage a variety of health conditions, including:
- 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
One tablespoon (8.8 grams) of poppy seeds contains approximately:
- Calories: 46
- Total Carbohydrates: 2.5 g
- Fiber: 1.7 g
- Sugar: g
- Total Fat: 3.6 g
- Saturated Fat: 0.4 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 2.5 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 0.5 g
- Trans Fat: 0 g
- Protein: 1.6 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 2.3 mg (0.1% DV*)
- Manganese: 0.6 mg (29% DV*)
- Calcium: 126 mg (13% DV*)
- Magnesium: 30.4 mg (8% DV*)
- Phosphorus: 76.1 mg ( 8% DV*)
- Copper: 0.1 mg (7% DV*)
*Daily Value: Percentages are based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day.
In addition, poppy seeds also contain some thiamine, iron, zinc, 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.
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. Low in Carbs and Sugar but Provides Fiber
Like other seeds, such as chia and flax, poppy seeds are considered a high-fiber food. Fiber is helpful for digestion and preventing constipation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Uses in Ayurveda and TCM
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.
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.
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. Crushed, dried poppy capsules can be found at some Asian markets and specialty stores.
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. 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. 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.
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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.