The poppy plant (Papaver somniferum) is infamous for numerous reasons, one of them being that it is the source of opium, a highly addictive narcotic. This led to the withdrawal of its legalization as an agricultural crop in many countries across the globe. Up until now, some countries still ban the cultivation and the distribution of this crop.
But despite its notoriety, the poppy plant is also the source of one of the most loved pastry ingredients in the world: poppy seeds. They are well-known for adding a crunch to various confections and desserts. Poppy seed oil, which can be used as both a culinary and a medicinal oil, can be extracted from them as well. Keep reading to learn more about this oilseed, and its history, health benefits and various uses.
What Are Poppy Seeds?
The poppy plant has been part of the agricultural world since the early ages, having been mentioned in the early accounts of the Greeks and Romans. The earliest documentation reaches as far back as 3,000 years ago. For the Egyptians, poppies symbolize rebirth because of its ability to be “reborn” after the harvest season.
The poppy plant is also a well-known symbol of remembrance for war veterans, which originates from its mention in the poem “In Flanders Fields,” which symbolizes the beauty and the renewal of war-ravaged land.
Aside from its literary and historical symbolism, the poppy plant is widely known for the various products that can be sourced from it. The vibrant poppy flowers are also used for ornamental purposes by the gardening community.
After the poppy flowers start to dry up, its kidney-shaped seeds start developing in the pods. This is one of the products from the poppy plant that is legal to produce and acquire. The opiate component of the plant is said to disappear once the seeds develop, making it safe for consumption. One of the easiest indications whether the seeds are ready for harvest is the rattling sound the pods give off when they are slightly shaken.
Poppy seeds come in three different colors: white, blue and black. Blue seeds are commonly called the European poppy seeds because they are abundant in that part of the world, while white poppy seeds are called Indian, Middle Eastern or Asian. There are no distinct differences between these types aside from their color, with the choice mainly depending on the color preference of the baker or the cook and its availability.
Poppy seeds are mainly used in the culinary world for their crunchy texture and unique flavor. One of the most famous pastries that incorporate poppy seeds originates from Hungary, and is called makosh, or Hungarian poppy seed roll; it uses poppy seeds as a filling.
Today, poppy seeds are commonly added to bagels, puddings, cakes and tarts. But although it’s usually added to baked goods, its culinary use is not limited to this.
18 Amazing Benefits of Poppy Seeds
Being a product of a relatively infamous plant, the health benefits of poppy seeds have been questioned time and time again. People fear that the seeds may cause the same narcotic effects that other poppy products give.
However, poppy seeds actually offer impressive nutritional components that can help your body improve or maintain optimal function. Poppy seeds can:
1. Improve Female Fertility
Studies have shown that flushing the fallopian tubes with poppy seed oil can boost fertility. Researchers speculate that the oil can dissolve any debris or mucus in the tubes and increase the chances of fertility. The technique, also called hysterosalpingography, had 40 percent of infertile women in the test group achieve successful pregnancies. Not only that, 29 percent of the infertile women in the group who had their fallopian tubes infused with poppy seed water achieved successful pregnancies (1).
Poppy seeds can also enhance sexual health. They contain lignans, compounds known to boost libido and sexual desire.
2. Enhance Digestion
Poppy seeds are sources of insoluble fiber, which can aid digestion. It also increases the bulk of the stool and helps treat constipation (2).
3. Treat Sleeplessness
As per a study, consuming a poppy seed drink decreased the levels of cortisol in the body. This led to a calming effect as the stress levels eventually went down. More interestingly, the circadian rhythms in the test subjects showed a marked improvement. Also, the individuals felt less fatigued.
Amongst poppy seeds, opium poppy is known to be particularly effective in inducing sleep (3). But exercise caution while giving it to kids. Consult your doctor before doing so.
You can also take poppy seed tea before you go to bed to enjoy better sleep. Just make a paste of poppy seeds and mix it with warm milk. Take it before bedtime. One cup of poppy seed tea would do the trick.
4. Cure Mouth Ulcers
Though there is limited research on this, anecdotal evidence suggests that poppy seeds can help cure mouth ulcers. Poppy seeds are known to have a cooling effect on the body, which plays a role in mouth ulcer treatment.
Simply mix some crushed dry coconut, powdered sugar candy, and ground poppy seeds. Shape it into a pellet and suck on this for instant relief from mouth ulcers.
5. Boost Energy
This property of the seeds can be attributed to their high content of complex carbohydrates, the macronutrients your body needs for energy. The seeds also help absorb calcium, the disruption of which can lead to fatigue.
6. Relieve Pain
The poppy plant contains morphine, codeine, thebaine, and other opium alkaloids known for their pain-relieving, calming, and sleep-inducing properties. These compounds are often found in pharmaceutical drugs intended for these uses (4).
These alkaloids are typically present in the poppy pod’s milky white liquid, also known as poppy latex.
Poppy seeds don’t naturally contain opium compounds but may become contaminated with them during harvesting or as a result of pest damage (4).
Thus, before reaching supermarket shelves, poppy seeds are usually cleaned to get rid of any opium alkaloids with which they may have come into contact.
However, it’s possible to find and purchase unwashed poppy seeds that contain higher levels of these opioids. Unwashed poppy seeds are often proposed as a natural alternative to certain pharmaceutical drugs (5).
7. Support Brain Health
The brain requires essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and copper – minerals that poppy seeds are rich in. These minerals aid in the regulation of neurotransmitters and enhance brain function.
Poppy seeds might also cut the risk of cognitive disorder. However, further research is warranted in this aspect.
8. Strengthen Bones
Poppy seeds are rich in calcium and copper. While the former improves bone health, the latter strengthens the bones as well as the connective tissue. Another mineral the seeds are rich in is phosphorus, which, along with calcium, makes up part of the bone tissue. And the manganese in the seeds aids the production of collagen, a protein that protects your bones from severe damage.
9. Boost Immunity
The zinc in poppy seeds can contribute to a strengthened immune system. The seeds also enhance the production of immune cells in the body. And the iron in the seeds also helps in this aspect.
The zinc in the seeds also helps ward off lower respiratory ailments.
10. Promote Heart and Skin Health
Poppy seed oil is particularly rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which may be beneficial for your heart and skin.
Research suggests that diets rich in unsaturated fats may reduce your risk of heart attacks and stroke by up to 17%. Replacing saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats may be particularly advantageous (7, 8, 9).
Keep in mind that diets with a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio may increase your risk of inflammation and disease. As such, it may be best to avoid consuming large amounts of omega-6 rich oils, including poppy seed oil, on a regular basis (10).
Additional research suggests that the fats in poppy seed oil may also support wound healing, as well as prevent scaly lesions when applied directly to the skin (11, 12). However, more research is needed.
11. Promote Good Vision
Poppy seeds are a good source of zinc, and certain studies say the mineral can aid vision health and even prevent serious eye diseases like macular degeneration (13). The antioxidants in poppy seeds can also benefit the eyes.
12. Prevent Cancer
As per one report published in TIME Magazine, the genes of opium poppies had shown promise in the development of a cancer drug (14). The drug called noscapine (produced from the derivatives of the opium poppy seeds) was found to fight tumors and even shrink the breast and prostate cancer cells. It can also stop cancer cell proliferation.
According to another Indian study, poppy seeds can increase the activity of a carcinogen-detoxifying enzyme called glutathione-S-transferase (GST) by as much as 78%. This activity of poppy seeds, as per the study, is high enough for the food to be considered potent for cancer treatment (15).
The tincture of the poppy plant is said to treat cancerous ulcers (16).
13. Help Treat Kidney Stones
Poppy seeds contain potassium, one mineral known to offer protection against and even treat kidney stones. However, according to a report by the University of Maryland Medical Center, individuals with hyperoxaluria, an excessive urinary excretion of oxalate that increases the risk of calcium oxalate kidney stones, need to limit the amount of poppy seeds in their diet as the seeds are high in oxalic acid (17).
14. Enhance Thyroid Function
Zinc is one of the minerals the thyroid gland needs for optimal functioning. Poppy seeds can play a vital role in this aspect as they are rich in zinc.
Also, iodinated poppy seed oil has been used in numerous parts of the world to treat iodine deficiency, the cause of thyroid dysfunction (18).
15. Help Treat Eczema and Inflammation
Poppy seeds are effective in treating eczema due to their high content of linolenic acid. Poppy seeds, after being soaked in water or milk, can be ground along with lime juice to form a smooth paste.
Applying this paste externally helps in treating burns and skin itchiness. It also acts as an effective painkiller by relieving the pain caused by skin inflammation.
16. Moisturize Skin
A paste made from poppy seeds acts as a good moisturizer, providing you with smooth and soft skin. All you need to do is put some poppy seeds in a food processor and add some milk to it. If you have dry skin, you can also add some honey. Grind into a smooth paste and apply it all over your face. Relax for 10 minutes and then wash off. Doing this once in a week will provide the required moisture to your skin.
17. Remove Dandruff
Dandruff is a common problem which, if left untreated, can lead to hair loss. For treating dandruff, you can apply a mixture of soaked poppy seeds, hung curd, and a teaspoon of white pepper on the scalp. Leave the mixture on for half an hour and then rinse it off. Regular usage of this pack will significantly reduce the recurrence of dandruff.
18. Stimulate Hair Growth
Although we don’t have enough information in this regard, poppy seeds have shown promise in certain cases. You can prepare a hair pack by blending soaked poppy seeds with freshly extracted coconut milk and pulped onion. Apply the mixture on your scalp and leave it on for about an hour. Rinse with a mild shampoo. Regular usage of this pack can stimulate hair growth.
The same pack might also help treat split ends, although there is very little information on this.
Are There Possible Side Effects?
Unwashed poppy seeds, poppy seed teas, and poppy-containing products marketed as natural pain relievers or sleep aids may contain doses of opioids sufficient to cause addiction, overdose, and even death (5, 6).
Therefore, their use is strongly discouraged unless you’re under medical supervision.
Likewise, poppy seed oil may harbor varying amounts of opioid compounds, depending on the seeds used to make it, though scientists have yet to examine this issue.
Poppy seed oil is generally considered safe when applied to the skin. Yet, if you experience redness, itchiness, or pain, it’s best to discontinue its use.
Selection and Storage
Fresh whole or ground poppy seeds can be readily available in the grocery stores. The seeds are high in polyunsaturated fats, which make them vulnerable to oxidation and turn rancid. Therefore, buy good quality whole fresh seeds from the authentic store. Store seeds poppy in cool, dry, dark place, in airtight containers where they will stay fresh for up to six months.
Store seeds poppy in cool, dry, dark places, in airtight containers where they will stay fresh for up to six months.
Tips for Using or Cooking Poppy Seeds
- Poppy seeds are used in various cultures to impart their rich nutty flavor to the recipes.
- Before proceeding to use them, clean the seeds properly to remove any stones.
- They should be soaked in warm water or milk for 2 hours.
- Drain them and leave them to dry.
- These soaked seeds can be used alone or ground with other spices to thicken gravies or curries.
- Poppy seeds are tasteless, but when heated, they obtain a nutty, spicy-sweet flavor. Roasting or baking makes them smell mild and sweet while deep frying releases special aromatic oils, making them crunchier.
- Poppy seeds are often added to buttered egg noodles, fruit salad dressings, and yeast breads. Their nutty flavor and texture makes them usable in breads, cakes, pastries, curries, confectionery, and pancakes.
- Patties made from powdered poppy seeds are often grilled or fried. A rice dish can be prepared by simply mixing uncooked ground poppy seeds with mustard oil, chopped green chili peppers, and rice.
Poppy seeds are rich in healthy plant compounds and nutrients. These seeds and their oil may boost fertility and aid digestion, though further research is needed on many of their supposed benefits.
Unwashed poppy seeds can also become contaminated with varying amounts of opium compounds known for their pain-relieving, calming, and sleep-inducing properties. Yet, you should never eat unwashed poppy seeds due to the health risks involved.
Poppy seeds found in supermarkets or on baked goods are widely considered safe and have few, if any, opium compounds.