01 Apr 2019

Poppy seed oil: Benefits and uses

author Ashley Owen
The tiny black seeds you're more used to seeing on your bread roll are actually the source of an incredible number of nutrients. Find out how poppy seed oil benefits your health.

Through the dancing poppies

The poet John Keats once wrote, "Through the dancing poppies stole / a breeze, most softly lulling to my soul". It's a beautiful image, and captures the magic of the poppy beautifully - both in terms of how it looks, and the effects of its seeds.

In the UK, we often associate poppies with remembrance for war veterans. The poppies we are most used to seeing are bright red, helping to associate them with the blood of fallen soldiers. Poppies also flowered all over the ragged battlefields of Flanders and Normandy in World War Two.

This tells us quite a lot about the flower itself; it was actually the churning of the soil that caused the poppies to grow. Their seeds germinate when exposed to light, and grow particularly well on disturbed ground.

Red poppies are also associated with the Napoleonic wars, while white Asian poppies also grew on the battlefields fought upon by Gengis Khan's armies.

Happily, other cultures around the world assign a less tragic significance to the poppy! Egyptians, for example, associate the poppy with renewal and rebirth. This is because each harvest the flowers are cut down with the crops, only to emerge again year after year.

Beside red and white, poppies also come in blue, lilac and orange varieties.

Poppy seed oil through the ages

One of the earliest uses of poppy seed oil that we know about was, surprisingly, as a paint thickener. Sun-thickened poppy seed oil was used to improve the texture of the paints used in one of the oldest cave paintings in the world, located in Afghanistan and dating back to 650 AD.

With the passage of time, poppy seeds became more associated with medicinal uses. They make an appearance in early medical texts across numerous cultures, including ancient Greek, Minoan, and Roman civilisations.

Poppy seed extracts are used to treat ailments of the skin in Ayurvedic medicine, as well as to heal muscle tension and relieve constipation, among other things. Meanwhile, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recommends poppy seeds for pain relief, respiration and improved digestion.

Poppy seeds were also commonly associated with improved sleep. The Ancient Egyptians may be at the root of this belief, but it appears to have spread, with recipes appearing in the middle ages for a tonic made from milk, honey and opium from poppy seeds. This was used to soothe wailing infants.

In the modern day

The association between poppy seeds and improved sleep is still with us today. In 'The Wizard of Oz', Dorothy goes to sleep after she is given poppies! At Erbology, we love to use poppy seed oil for sleep. If you'd like to give it a go, try taking a tablespoon just before bed.

One of the reasons behind poppy seeds' effects on sleep is the very small amount of opium alkaloids they contain. Don't worry - you would have to eat an extraordinary amount of poppy seeds to become intoxicated (although some opioid drugs are made from poppy seeds). Rather, in such small amounts, these compounds can help soothe your nervous system, relieve stress, and increase your ability to cope with physical aches.

Perhaps the most bizarre of the powers attributed to poppy seeds is comes from folklore, and claims that they can grant invisibility. We'll let you make up your own mind on that one!


How else are poppy seeds and poppy seed oil used?

You might know poppy seeds best as a culinary ingredient. They make a frequent appearance in breads, cakes, cereals and more, and serve as a popular topping for dinner rolls in the UK and US. Alternatively, you might have tried lemon and poppy seed cake, supposedly one of the great Paul Hollywood's favourites!

Poppy seeds add a lovely, nutty flavour and light crunch to sweet and savoury dishes. Chefs use them to top traditional strudels in Germany, Austria, and the Americas, or add them to the Bengali potato dish aloo posto. In Karnataka, locals make a delicious dessert called gasagase payase, made of coconut, white poppy seeds, and jaggery, a type of cane sugar. Grilled or fried patties made of powdered poppy seeds are popular in many places. Czech, Croatian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European cuisines also regularly use poppy seeds.

Poppy seed oil is delicate and nutty, making it brilliant for use in salad dressings or as a condiment. In a Turkish study, the test group described the flavour of cold-pressed poppy seed oil as a rich edible oil, with waxy, fruity, creamy, roasted and sweet notes.(1)

Some types can be used as a cooking oil, however we don't recommend heating our Organic Poppy Seed Oil. This is because the cold-pressing process we use keeps in all the healthy nutrients (which would be degraded by cooking). Unrefined oils like ours also generally have a lower smoking point.

Outside of the kitchen, these little seeds are also regularly used to make soap, paint and varnish. The oil also makes a very good moisturiser for the skin.

Where do poppies grow today?

The poppy grows in many regions of the world. For example, Asia and the Middle East are known for the farming of opium poppies. However, in the early 20th century, France and Germany led the world in the production of poppy seed oil, processing poppy seeds grown in other countries. Today, the Czech Republic and Turkey are the top exporters of poppy seeds.

Poppy seeds have a wide and international appeal. While the official, Latin name of the poppy is Papaver sonmniferum, it boasts a number of other poetic names, from kasa kasa (Tamil) to khush khush (Punjabi). In Sumeria, poppy flowers are called 'joy plants', which sums up nicely how we feel about them.

poppy seed

Poppy seed flavour and appearance

Poppy seeds grow in poppy 'heads', which ripen after the flower wilts. Each poppy head measures approximately five to six centimetres long and four centimetres across. Eventually, the poppy head will dry and harden until it cracks, releasing the tiny seeds over the nearby ground. Alternatively, gardeners hoping to sow the seeds can gather them once they can hear the seeds rattling inside the poppy head.

Each head contains hundreds of tiny poppy seeds, which are so minute that it takes 3,300 of them to make one gram!

Fully grown poppy seeds do not contain any opiate compounds. While the different colours of poppy look beautifully unique in the garden, their seeds taste pretty much the same; mild, nutty and pleasant.

Now we've covered the origins and uses of poppy seeds, let's delve into all poppy seed oil's benefits for your health and wellbeing.