Opium for free with food

Old opium den (Illustration: Wikimedia)

Old opium den (Illustration: Wikimedia)

I know opium is not the must popular drug these days. It has the connotation of a Chinese den from the 19th century. Opium dens in China were frequented by all levels of society, and their opulence or simplicity reflected the financial means of the patrons. But what about if you can get it for free as part of your food supply, no financial means needed? Interested now?

Opium is normally harvested from the milky sap of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) together with other narcotic agents like morphine and codeine. They are collectively called opium alkaloids and have been used by man for the treatment of severe pain for generations – and of course misuse. The milky sap can be found across the plant and particularly in the pericarp of the capsule, but normally not in the seeds. Although the seeds of the poppy plant do not contain the milky sap, they can become contaminated with alkaloids as a result of insect damage to the capsule, or through poor harvesting practices.

And herein lies the conundrum since poppy seeds are used as food in bakery products, on top of dishes, in fillings of cakes and in desserts and to produce edible oil.  Consumption of foods containing poppy seeds that are contaminated with opium alkaloids can lead to adverse health effects and to detectable contents of free alkaloids in blood as well as measurable concentrations in urine, sufficient to interfere with drug abuse testing.

To some extent harvesting of poppy seeds is in conflict with harvesting for opium. Poppy seeds of superior quality are harvested when they are ripe, after the seed pod has dried. Traditionally, opium is harvested while the seed pods are green and their milky sap is abundant, but the seeds have just begun to grow. Poppy varieties especially bred with high alkaloid content intended for pharmaceutical purposes are also used for production of poppy seeds for food use in some countries. However, low morphine varieties are available particularly for food use.

Poppy seed consumption varies broadly around the world. Poppy seeds are widely used in Austrian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Turkish and Ukrainian cuisines. In some cultures, such as in Central and Eastern European countries, it is traditional to use poppy seeds in foods, and in specific instances sometimes in high amounts in bread, fine bakery ware, desserts and other dishes. In other countries poppy seeds are commonly used as a condiment or decoration only at very much lower levels.

Whole poppy seeds (Photo: Wikimedia)

Whole poppy seeds (Photo: Wikimedia)

Whole poppy seeds are used as a spice and decoration in and on top of many baked goods like bagels, muffins and cakes, for example, sponge cake. Buns and soft white bread pastries are often sprinkled on top with black and white poppy seeds. Fillings in pastries are sometimes made of finely ground poppy seeds mixed with butter or milk and sugar. The ground filling is used in poppy seed rolls and some croissants and may be flavoured with say lemon or orange zest.

The data on the pharmacology of morphine, codeine and the other opium alkaloids in poppy seeds indicate that morphine is the most pharmacologically active opiate compound, with codeine as the second. They cause a number of different effects, both in the central nervous system and in the peripheral nervous system like sedation and respiratory depression.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued an opinion on public health risks related to the presence of opium alkaloids in poppy seeds in 2011. It concluded that for poppy seeds consumed as condiments or decoration in bread and fine bakery ware acute symptoms would be rare but might possibly affect toddlers. On the contrary, a considerable proportion of consumers of foods that contain large amounts of poppy seeds, such as are common in Central and Eastern European countries, would be likely to show some acute symptoms at least on some eating occasions. The highest theoretical exposure estimates in the opinion were actually 75-fold greater than the threshold for acute symptoms.

So would this provide a free kick?

Poppy seed bakery ware (Photo: Wikimedia)

Poppy seed bakery ware (Photo: Wikimedia)

Well, this depends on the food preparation methods. The opium alkaloid content of poppy seeds and poppy seed containing foods can be reduced by several methods of pre-treatment and processing. Food processing may decrease the alkaloid content by up to about 90 %. The most effective methods include washing, soaking and heat treatments, as well as grinding and combinations of these treatments.

Still, acute effects might be seen after a single large portion of some traditional food dishes containing raw, unwashed and unground poppy seeds in high amounts according to the EFSA opinion.

So be warned.

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