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The Dangers of Poppy Seed Tea

Posted in Food Safety,Our Blog on July 12, 2019

Have you heard of poppy seed tea? Perhaps you use it occasionally to help you sleep at night? Apparently, it’s very dangerous to drink poppy seed tea, and at least 12 people have died from it. Here’s the low down on Poppy Seed Tea danger:

OK, so what’s the deal here?

The poppy flower is a gorgeous creation with large leaves and a big dark center, similar in appearance to the stunning anemone. It’s a plant with many uses…species of poppy are cultivated around the world for their beauty, symbolism, and in the case of the opium poppy, the opium. The ancients called it the “Joy plant”—with a name like that of course it spread around the world and even spawned wars in the 1800s.

And…with a name like that, it’s hard not to roll your eyes when you point out that the plant does have practical uses. Opium comes from the milky latex in the unripe seed capsule of the opium poppy. A part of the plant so specific you have to wonder how the ancients discovered its properties. Opium is the source for morphine, that heavy hitting pain drug by which all other pain drugs are measured.  Codeine, used for less intense pain relief and also cough relief, and oxycodone, another pain reliever, are also derived from opium. Most infamously, opium is the source of heroin.

Once fully ripe, the seeds lose their narcotic properties (according to Encyclopedia Britannia) and fully ripe seeds are used in baking, to make oil, and feed birds. You’ve almost certainly had lemon poppy seed cake or bagels with poppy seeds on top. Most of the poppy seeds used for food are from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, but the amounts used in cooking are far too small to be dangerous. Though, apparently, they can cause a false positive on a drug test, which has been known long enough to be a laugh line and flimsy excuse from job applicants.

If you google “poppy seeds” your browser will fill with places to buy them, and articles about whether or not they will cause you to fail a drug test. If you google “poppy seed tea” you’ll be bombarded with both recipes and big warnings that the tea can kill you.

The problem is “contaminated poppy seeds,” which makes it sound like a more typical food poisoning situation, where the plant has been tainted by bad water. But that’s not the case. It’s the plants own properties which are the issue. It’s like eating improperly prepared puffer fish. Exactly how much do you trust this chef? And every person who touched the fish between the ocean and the table?

Simply put, fully ripe opium poppy seeds are safe. If the seeds are not fully ripe, then they still have the milky opium, and that can kill you. How many growers and processing plants can swear on their lives that there are no slightly less than perfectly ripe teeny tiny seeds in those bags they sell?

Opium Is the Thing, Now, Isn’t it?

As mentioned, the point of poppy seed tea is for relaxation, pain relief, and sleep. Sometimes it’s used to help the bowels. These are the very same things that opium was used for originally. The very thing that makes a person want to use the tea is the very thing that makes the tea dangerous. The amount of opium released in homebrew methods makes it both effective and dangerous.

Despite the connection between the seeds and opium, poppy seeds are legal and incredibly easy to come by. They are sold by many online retailers and brands; they are also carried in brick and mortar stores. Recipes for the tea are easy to find on the internet—though now many of them include cautions and very specific instructions about what kind of poppy to use (one I found recommended the California poppy, which is not an opium poppy). Mercola.com offers a “Healthy Poppy Seed Tea Recipe” of 200 g (0.44 lbs) poppy seeds in 400 ml water, and Chewtheworld.com says to brew 300 g of poppy seeds  in 400 ml of water, advising consumers: “[t]o prevent overdose, Health And Nutrition Tips suggests ingesting not more than 3 pounds of poppy seeds.”

A death from a poppy seed overdose is hard to catch because it looks just like any other overdose—unless one specific test is done looking for one specific chemical which is only found when the opium was only one step removed from the seed. Scientists at Sam Houston State University tested 22 readily available brands of poppy seeds, using tea-brewing techniques found on the internet, and found that even moderate use of poppy tea could easily result in ingesting lethal amounts of morphine. There was some variety in morphine levels from one brand to another and from one harvest time to another, but the risk was common. The difference between just barely overdosed and extremely overdosed isn’t as important as the difference between “not too much” and “too much.”

It’s incredibly easy to accidentally die from drinking poppy tea.

Here’s the other interesting thing: Opioid poppy and poppy straws are controlled substances in the U.S.A., but poppy seeds are not. Probably because, as mentioned earlier, they are harmless when fully ripe and used in baking.

The FDA has urged the DEA to crackdown on the sale of unwashed poppy seeds, and even issued an order to poppy seed retailers to stop making even vaguely medical statements about the uses of poppy seeds.

Because of the dangers posed by the opium levels in unwashed poppy seeds, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote a letter to the FDA, the DOJ and others urging them to take action to regulate unwashed poppy seeds. Besides causing accidental death, unwashed poppy seeds are a readily available source of illicit opium. Poppy tea is also, therefore, potentially addictive.

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 its time they should.

It’s really harder to disagree with that.

By: Abigail Cossette Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)