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Some science behind the scenes

Poppy seeds

Poppy seeds are “a common and flavoursome topping for breads and cakes”. They are also a very important ingredient in curries and can be used as a topping on fish, steaks and all sorts of dishes.  They can be ground or toasted or left ‘raw’ in culinary use.

And they are easily obtained being sold in small handy packets or in bulk in large bags.  They keep well as long as they are stored in an air tight container in a darkish place.

And they come from Papaver somniferum, the source of opium.

During the Communist era in Eastern Europe,  poppy seeds were used to produce koknar, a sort of poppy seed tea. There have even been cases reported of ‘poppy seed dependence’, for example

While poppy seed and poppy tea dependence has been described, it is unusual to see such patients actively seek treatment in India. We report the case of an 82-year-old client with dependent use of poppy seeds for 55 years. She was brought for treatment as access to poppy became difficult following legal restrictions

In New Zealand, one study found that a total of 11 of 24 (46%) patients reported having used Poppy seed tea. In five patients it represented the major source of opiates, and two had managed to withdraw from use of other opiates with regular Poppy seed tea use.   Patients reported a median onset of action of 15 minutes and an effect lasting a median of 24 hours.

The major limitation of Poppy seed tea use ‘was the foul taste’.

What alkaloids?

Poppy seeds when tested have been found to contain;

In some samples of Papaver somniferum L. poppy seeds from Indian and the Netherlands they also found:

So, the alkaloids are not dissimilar to those in opium.


 I have combined the results from a number of studies in the table below.

Concentration in micrograms per gram






Indian poppy seeds







Netherlands poppy seed







‘Three white poppy seed samples’

58.4 to 62.2

28.4 to 54.1

Not known

Not known

Not known

Maximum from a variety of seeds tested from different countries



Not known

Note 1

Not known

Untreated unwashed poppy seeds



Not known

Not known

Not known

 NOTE 1 The thebaine concentrations were found to vary with each seed sample analysed

The figures are hugely different but do seem to be reasonably representative of the general problem with poppy seeds as a source of opiates. 

  • First that they can contain – relatively speaking – quite a lot of alkaloid content or they can contain very little, which makes the effects entirely unpredictable
  • Secondly the proportions of each alkaloid can differ enormously depending on the source – the country, the plant and the variety and this cannot be traced in a packet of seed obtained from a food manufacturer.  You could be using seeds bred for low morphine content and high yield for example, or the seed could have come from a true opium poppy used to produce opium. 

The processes of ‘manufacture’

Poppy seeds aren’t manufactured as such but they are processed.

You only have to soak the seeds in water and a lot of the alkaloid content disappears.   By soaking the seeds in water “45.6 per cent of the free morphine and 48.4 per cent of the free codeine can be removed”.  Many producers and distributors of poppy seeds wash the seeds for hygienic reasons  “most seeds available commercially have been washed which cuts the alkaloid content by 50 per cent or more”. 

The washing of seeds has increased after one bright spark noticed that he could use this in his defence if challenged for drug use. In tests done to determine the effects of ingesting poppy seeds a single poppy seed roll (0.76 grams of seeds) usually did not produce a positive drug test,  but a positive result was observed from eating two rolls. A slice of poppy seed cake containing nearly five grams of seeds per slice produced positive results for 24 hours.

 ‘I ate two poppy seed bagels your honour’ and ‘I had five slices of poppy seed cake


I was hungry your honour and it tasted very good, especially with the poppy pod tea I had it with – oops what am I saying’.

Who produces poppy seeds?

The country of origin of the seed specimen analysed also has an influence on the alkaloid concentration. 

There are about  6 countries that cultivate opium poppies solely for the poppy seed or horticultural purposes, without extraction of alkaloids from poppy straw:  - Austria, Estonia, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, and Ukraine. Thus this will determine the sorts of alkaloid found in the seeds.  The varieties grown will tend to be cultivars and other varieties that produce high yields of seeds but are low in alkaloid content – particularly the narcotic alkaloids.

Another three countries grow opium poppies for the seed crop, and also legally sell the poppy straw as a by-product: -  the Czech Republic, Serbia and Montenegro.  This may make the seeds highly unpredictable in effect given the end market – the pharmaceutical industry.

India produces  licit opium under the terms of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. After the opium is harvested, the plants are allowed to mature and are harvested for poppy seeds. Poppy seeds are used extensively in Indian cuisine and the sale of poppy seeds delivers a significant proportion of the income from the licit opium crop. These seeds thus both come from an an unadulterated source of opium and are traditionally harvested, but as we can see from the chart above, if this chart is at all representative, the seeds contain disproportionately large amounts of noscapine/narcotine. 

Overall poppy seeds have their own entirely unpredictable profile.


  •  Detection of morphine after ingestion of poppy seeds  - Angelo HR, Kaa E Bispebjerg Hospital, Kobenhavn. Ugeskr Laeger 1993 Dec 6; 155(49):4011-3
  • Poppy seeds: implications of consumption  - Lo DS, Chua TH Toxicology Laboratory,
    Institute of Science and Forensic Medicine, Singapore. Med Sci Law 1992 Oct; 32(4):296-302
  • Opiate concentrations following the ingestion of poppy seed products--evidence for 'the poppy seed defence'  - Meadway C, George S, Braithwaite R; Regional Laboratory for Toxicology,  City Hospital NHS Trust, Birmingham, UK. Forensic Sci Int 1998 Aug 31; 96(1):29-38
  • A case of poppy tea dependence in an octogenarian lady - Nanjayya SB, Murthy P, Chand PK  Kandaswamy A, Nikketha BS, Benegal V, Shivappa M. De-Addiction Centre, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, India.
  • Poppy seed tea and opiate abuse in New Zealand. - Braye K, Harwood T, Inder R, Beasley R, Robinson G.; Alcohol and Drug Service, Capital and Coast District Health Board, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Unusual presentations for pharmacotherapy-poppy seed dependence - Lloyd-Jones DM  Bonomo Y; St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
  • Gas chromatographic/mass spectrometric detection of narcotine, papaverine, and thebaine in seeds of Papaver somniferum - Paul BD, Dreka C, Knight ES, Smith ML.  Division of Forensic Toxicology, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC USA.


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