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First cultivated in the first century AD, poppy seeds have been used in a variety of baked goods ever since. Poppy seeds have been used for centuries by people all over the world. They are said to be rich in fiber, plant fats and other nutrients such as: Manganese, Calcium, Phosphorous, Iron, and Zinc. When steeped, the tea is said to offer various benefits, including promoting digestion, aiding sleep, boosting skin and hair health, and treating headaches, coughs, and asthma. Known to the ancients as the “joy plant”, poppies are cultivated around the world for their beauty and symbolism. And yes, in the case of the opium poppy… the opium. While poppy seeds do not contain the opium alkaloids, they can become contaminated with alkaloids as a result of insect damage, or through poor harvesting practices.
Additionally, the seed pods or seeds have been used for centuries to produce poppy tea or poppy seed tea, also known as opium tea, for its narcotic, analgesic, antidiarrheal, and/or euphoric effects—or as a substitute for opiates. The resulting herbal beverage is not a true tea, as tea is prepared with the leaves of a plant, and is far from harmless. Its consumption has been documented to cause addiction, stroke, and even poppy seed death.
What many people don’t realize, is that the popular seeds used in baking come from the same poppy plant responsible for producing opiates such as: opium, morphine, and codeine. Because the level of opiates present in the seeds is substantially reduced as a result of the baking process, the seeds are generally considered safe for consumption. However, consuming poppy seeds can lead to positive opiate tests in urine drug screening. Opiates can be detected in blood, saliva, and hair as well, and may be detected in the urine for up to 48 hours after poppy seed ingestion.
The opium poppy plant contains narcotic alkaloids such as morphine and codeine. In the United States, poppy plants are considered a Schedule II controlled substance and therefor cannot be legally grown here. Fully ripe poppy seeds however, do not contain the opium alkaloids so they are legal to purchase. However, if the seeds are not fully ripened, the pods still contain the milky opium that can kill you. All of the seeds sold in this country are imported from other countries where cultivation is permitted and where the seeds can also become contaminated as a result of insect damage, or through poor harvesting practices.
Unfortunately, not all importers adequately process their seeds, and some sellers even market poppy seeds as “unwashed” or “unprocessed,” to convey that they have high levels of opiates to consumers who may purchase the seeds to brew poppy seed tea. Brewing this tea can concentrate the opiates from a batch of seeds and consumers of it may not be aware that the effects from the consumption of the seeds may be due to these opiates. In addition, opiate contamination levels can vary widely from batch to batch, putting those who drink the tea at increased risk of accidental overdose or other health consequences such as stroke or even poppy seed death.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently filed a petition urging the Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers from unprocessed poppy seeds, which are often contaminated with the plant’s naturally occurring opiate residues. After losing their 24yr old son to a poppy seed tea overdose in 2016, one petitioner said: “It was hard for us to believe that something as innocent and common as poppy seeds could be lethal, now we want to make sure the poppy seeds brought into this country are cleaned, to spare other families this kind of loss.”
As they are not regulated, poppy seeds are widely available for purchase both online and at local health food stores. Upon googling “poppy seeds” or “poppy seed tea” you’ll find websites abound where one can purchase the seeds and even learn how to make the tea. Most of them exclaiming the proposed health benefits of the concoction. Touting the drink as “one of the world’s oldest known medicines.”
Is it really worth it though? Yes, it has been around for centuries, and while it’s benefits and side effects are fairly well known, the general public does not usually make the connection between the seemingly harmless seed, used in all of their favorite baked goods, and the more lethal opioid drugs made from the plant’s other components. These websites generally do list possible side effects such as, drowsiness, dehydration respiratory depression, constipation and nausea. Unfortunately, they don’t list risk of addiction, overdose, stroke, or poppy seed death which are also alarmingly common.
A warning letter from the FDA to one online retailer stated:
Your PoppySeed Wash product is not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above referenced use and, therefore, the product is a “new drug” under section 201(p) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321(p)]. And Your PoppySeed Wash product is intended for treatment of one or more diseases that are not amenable to self-diagnosis or treatment without the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Therefore, it is impossible to write adequate directions for use for a layperson to use your product safely for its intended purposes.
I can understand the desire to limit or avoid both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Most of them have so many side effects it makes you wonder if it’s really worth the risk. You won’t have a headache anymore, but this medication may cause stomach bleeding, no thanks. But people have to be careful when searching online for natural and alternative remedies. Just because someone posts it online doesn’t mean it’s true! Additionally, much of the information provided is incomplete and often inaccurate.
It’s important to do your research before trying any form of alternative or purportedly ‘natural’ medicine. Just because it grows naturally on the earth does not mean it is safe for consumption! Check and double check your sources to ensure their credibility, and check with your doctor before even considering trying any ‘alternative’ form of medicine.
Medical and government publications have documented over 600 reported adverse events including 20 overdoses and 19 total fatalities attributed to poppy in the U.S., with most fatalities having occurred since 2015. Additionally, data showed that rates of adverse events related to poppy use may be rising.
Researchers at the European Food Safety Authority collected and tested more than a thousand samples of poppy seeds from various countries between 2012 and 2017. They found that the opiate alkaloid content of imported poppy seeds varies widely. The mean level of opiate alkaloids per seeds was 57.8 mg / kg. The highest level of contamination, however, was almost tenfold that number, at 596 milligrams of alkaloids per kilogram of seeds.
That’s a significant level of variation. Consumers purchasing unwashed poppy seeds won’t know whether they’re getting 57 milligrams of alkaloids per kilo of seeds or ten times that. Because imported seeds are not tested or labelled for opiate alkaloid content, and because the level and kind of opiate alkaloid varies considerably from one sort of seeds to another, there’s little consistency and or transparency about what you’re getting with your unwashed seeds, which may lead to accidental overdose and poppy seed death.
The European Union (EU) has adopted regulations for the breeding, pest control and harvesting of poppies which reduce the chance of contaminating fully ripe poppy seeds with the other, deadlier, parts of the plant. CSPI urges adopting similar policies. The letter collects and presents evidence of the poppy seed deaths, the scientific properties in play, and the laws already violated by the sale of contaminated seeds. CSPI argues that the FDA and DOJ have ample authority to take action to regulate poppy seeds, and that it’s time they should.