An interesting food with a controversial pedigree is the subject of a thriving international trade, despite its nebulous status. Canadian correspondent Arthur Hanks explores the paradox of the poppyseed.

You’ve likely had this little seed. It’s a popular confectionery ingredient, commonly found in baking and bread products from many world cultures. It is in itself innocuous and seemingly unremarkable.

But you are not allowed to grow it and you could face life imprisonment if you do so. Despite this prohibition, its flowers are seen in background gardens across Canada, viable seeds are legally sold over the counter in gardening supply shops, and they are also found in grocery spice racks and bulk bins.

This is the poppyseed.

Ingredient in bagels… and heroin

The paradox of poppy is a good example of how nature mocks mankind’s sense of order – this flower murks up the border of food and drug policy. Poppyseed may be the tiny sprinkles you find sprinkled on your toasted morning bagel or the source of oil that helps make the novel lemony salad dressing you just discovered. But the same genus, Papaveraceae, is also the source of pharmaceutical-grade opium and derivatives such as heroin, morphine and codeine. There are likely few bagels served in Kabul or the Golden Triangle.

How can this be?

While there are an estimated 200 species of poppy, with different levels of alkaloids present, the most commonly grown globally is Papaver somniferum, which produces both opiates and seed at different points in the life cycle. The pods are the source for opiates; immature seed heads are lanced to allow an opiate containing latex to flow from the flower pod. The latex hardens, is carefully scraped out and then collected. However, as the flower matures, the poppy loses its ability to produce the latex, and so no longer has drug value. It’s just a pretty flower with a nice-tasting seed.

Commercial production outlawed in many countries

Because of the fear of illicit use, many countries have outlawed commercial poppy production. The United States outlawed the poppy in 1942 – however, the related species of California poppy (which also contains alkaloids) was not outlawed and is in fact today that state’s official flower.

In Canada and many countries, similar legal prohibitions apply.

However, over 100 other countries have continued to grow poppies for one reason or another. Turkey is the largest international trader of seed; in 2001, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that the country exported 25,000 million tonnes at a value of close to US$20m. The Netherlands is home to the top-rated ‘blue’ seed. Hungarian ‘blue seed’ is also commonly used in Europe. Tasmania is also a place of special interest, as the island state grows an exceptional 8000 hectares annually for the pharmaceutical industry under a controlled licence system. Seed is a by-product of this industry and large amounts are exported globally.

Appeals to gourmets and the health-conscious alike

Poppyseed’s gastronomical appeal comes from its nutty taste and the crunchy texture that it gives to a food. The little blue, grey or white seeds also add visual appeal. The seed’s oil is used in Europe and now in North America as a gourmet item.

Different cultures have enjoyed eating poppyseed as a specialty food, mostly in baked goods, for years. Russians boast of the Poppyseed Roulette (a spiral bread), and Sooshka cookies with poppyseed. Austrians eat Hackbraten and Germans Spätzle with poppyseed, while Silesians created Mohntorte (poppy pie); Indians enjoy seed in Naan bread, and Columbians in their Buenelos. Poppyseed is also often mixed with sesame seed to make Halva.

And it’s not just bakery items. In India, poppyseed (usually ‘Persian whites’) is also used as a thickener paste for curries; in Austria poppyseed is also found in Viennese Noodles au Gratin. In Turkey, poppy oil cake and meal are often used as a goat feed, and the milk is often used to make yoghurt. Poppyseed is also used as birdseed; known as ‘maw’ seed, according to some sources after the Old English ‘mouth’.

By itself, poppyseed is very nutritious. The small seeds have about 45-50% oil content, which is very high. As with other seeds, they are good sources of protein, fibre and fats; in the case of poppyseed these include the nutraceutically valued linoleic (60%) and oleic (30%) acids; the seeds have less than 10% saturated fats.

Poppyseed is also a midrange source of calcium.

Based on this nutrition information, poppyseed appears to be a very useful food for vegetarians and vegans as well as being heart smart.

But so far there seems to be no dedicated research applied to poppyseed in the scientific community. And there is also some quiet controversy because of the drug issue.

As stated, coming from the mature plant, poppyseed cannot be considered a drug. But similar to hempseed, concern has been expressed about whether poppyseed consumption might confound standard (and very sensitive) urinalysis testing. According to a New York Times story in 1999, a new NYPD directive implicitly prohibited poppyseed bagels because of the presence of trace opiates.

“Why should someone lose their job over eating a poppyseed bagel or two,” asked concerned police? To date, it is unclear how this issue has been handled by the various testing authorities.

Ambiguous legal standing

Poppyseed’s status in neighbouring Canada is also enigmatic. As per United Nations Conventions on narcotic drugs, the production and distribution of plants such as opium poppy and cannabis are controlled, despite historic records of food use (poppyseed and hempseed). However, in the case of poppyseed, there is no real restriction on use or possession. Nor is there a requirement that seed sold in stores be sterilised. A crackdown on backyard gardeners is not anticipated, and so if you go, say, to the backwoods of British Columbia or do some searching on the Internet, you may find evidence of larger-scale “illicit” production.

We do know Canadians like poppyseed, as the country imports between 1 million to about 1.5 million kilograms a year, a value of roughly C$1 (US$0.65) a kg. Australia, specifically Tasmania, is the major Canadian supplier but Turkey and the Netherlands are also prominent. (Globally, Poland, Iran, Romania, Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Argentina are also noteworthy exporters.)

With some marketing and the creation of distribution channels, growing poppyseed could be a good business opportunity, especially now that Canadian-grown herbs and spices are gaining market acceptance and the capabilities of the sector are rising. The large US market for poppyseed could welcome a North American source. Growing appreciation for ethnic foods could make this concept a winner.

However, Health Canada did not return phone calls for this story and so could not comment on licensing or changes in regulations that would give a clear legal right to grow this crop. Perhaps they are waiting for a good business plan. Or perhaps the paradox of the poppy confounds them as well?