Chemistry of Morphine, Heroin, and Lemon Poppy Seed Cake

poppy seeds heroin morphine drug testYou’ve heard the warnings – don’t eat poppy seeds before taking a drug test. The seeds can trigger a false positive reading for opioids, making your potential employer think you could be a heroin addict. A few years back, Mythbusters reproduced the anecdotes, showing that just two poppy seed bagels was enough to make Jamie test positive for drugs. (Other studies have shown the same thing.)

Morphine Vs. Heroin

The problem with poppy seed bagels is that the seeds contain a small amount of morphine, which just so happens to be one of the byproducts of heroin (diacetylmorphine) metabolism. Drug tests look for small amounts of residual morphine in urine as an indicator of recent heroin use. It’s easy to see the similarities between the two chemical structures:

chemical structure of morphine and heroin

The structural similarity is actually no coincidence. Heroin is produced from morphine, which in turn is isolated from none other than the poppy plant. Back around the turn of the century (1900 ± a few years, that is), heroin was first synthesized in the laboratory from morphine. The new drug was actually marketed by Bayer as a non-addictive treatment for morphine addiction, until it was discovered that it actually is addictive. And that it turns into morphine in the body. Oops.


prescription heroin bayer

Fortunately, it’s possible to test for another metabolite of heroin – 6-monoacetylmorphine – that isn’t found in poppy seeds. The absence of this compound in a urine test would suggest that trace morphine didn’t come from heroin.

6-MAM heroin metabolite chemical structure

Can You Get a Full Dose of Morphine From Poppy Seeds?

Morphine itself can be administered (by licensed professionals) as a prescription painkiller. Though it’s more commonly given intravenously, it is also available orally as a tablet. A standard oral dose consists of about 10 to 30 mg of morphine. Is it possible to get a full dose of morphine from eating poppy seeds?

One report in the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that the morphine content of poppy seeds varies widely with poppy seed source. Spanish poppy seeds seem to have the most morphine – about 251 micrograms of morphine per gram of seeds. This translates to about 0.025% morphine by weight.

Thus, to get a medically relevant dose of morphine (10 mg) from Spanish poppy seeds you would have to consume…

morphine content of poppy seeds heroin

About 40 grams of poppy seeds! It seems like a lot, but how hard would that actually be? A standard baking conversion for dry ingredients is about 8 grams per tablespoon, and one poppy seed bagel probably has, what – a teaspoon or two? By that math, you’d probably have to eat around a dozen poppy seed bagels all at once.

heroin morphine in poppy seeds drug test

However, this delicious looking cake recipe calls for an entire cup of poppy seeds, or approximately equal to 128 grams! Granted, the recipe yields 10 to 12 servings, but one would only have to eat 3 or 4 slices of this Bundt cake to get up to a full prescription dose of morphine! (If the most potent poppy seeds were used.)

Do note that I’m not advocating that anyone try this. Besides the fact that such an experiment is sketchy (morphine is a controlled substance, after all), most types of poppy seeds contain much less morphine than the Spanish seeds cited above. Like, 100 times less. If you’re dealing with, say, Turkish poppy seeds, you might have to consume dozens of poppy seed Bundt cakes to get a medically relevant dose of morphine. Not to mention that the oral bioavailability of morphine in poppy seeds may be different that that of morphine in tablets (which is technically morphine sulfate).

Secondly, poppy seeds are not low-cal. Even the most morphine-rich ones would cost you around 250 calories of seeds alone to get a minimal dose of painkiller. Combine that with the calories of the cake they’re baked into, and I’m thinking you’re gonna need Pepto-Bismol instead of morphine.

Ah, fun with math and chemistry : )

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26 Responses to Chemistry of Morphine, Heroin, and Lemon Poppy Seed Cake

  1. Nice post, but you are obviously unfamiliar with Polish poppy seed cakes. Have a look at the one shown on this page! A couple of slices of whatever sourced seeds will put you over the top.

  2. General thought–I adore this blog, and it is truly the blog I wish I wrote. The way you explain interesting and complicated (to the lay person) chemistry and biology concepts is hilarious and educational!

    Moving along. This specific post brings to mind the ONLY time I have gotten a drug test done for a job (a summer internship at a major pharmeceutical compnay). I was so paranoid that I might accidentally ingest some poppy seeds that I avoided bagels of any kind for about a week before the test. Even so, I had this intense (and completely ungrounded) fear that there would be a false positive. There wasn’t. It was fine. And now I know that I would really have to like poppy seeds a LOT to have that happen.

    And knowing’s half the battle.

    • Elly says:

      LOL. I have to have annual medical surveillance performed, including a drug test, to maintain my OSHA Hazwoper certification, and I get nervous looking at the little card used for the drug test. Even though I have never even tried any kind of illegal substance in my entire life. I feel you. :)

    • Don’t confuse the amount of poppy seeds needed to create the equivalent of 1- 10 mg. morphine pill. That is a lot of seeds—and calories by the look of it.
      The number of poppy seeds needed to turn a urine screen positive are FAR less.
      This is due to the sensitivity levels being used by toxicology labs..where even the smallest traces are often assumed to be the possible residue of prior heavier, illicit use.

  3. SciWo says:

    I had adverse reactions to codeine and morphine prescribed after surgery, and I’ve noticed several times that poppyseed bread/bagels give me headaches. I knew they were about the chemical connection, but thanks so much for working out the dosage. At least I know now that if forced to eat a poppyseed bagel or two, I won’t get really sick. But generally I just avoid them altogether.

  4. @Cathy – Thanks so much, I appreciate your appreciation!! Hey, it’s probably good that you avoided poppy seeds like the plague! It takes a lot to equate to a pharmaceutical dose of morhpine, but actually not so much to leave the trace amounts of morphine in your system that they look for in a drug test. Twitter user @DavidMLindsay pointed out this article from just last month about a triathlete’s false positive. It could’ve been you!

    @SciWo – That is super interesting that you have actually experienced adverse effects of poppy seeds! I wonder if any of your doctors have ever thought to suggest that you avoid poppy seeds because of your intolerance of morphine/codeine?

  5. Namnezia says:

    “Granted, the recipe yields 10 to 12 servings, but one would only have to eat 3 or 4 slices of this Bundt cake to get up to a full prescription dose of morphine! ”

    My question is – Does baking the cake (or brewing the tea) cause some of the morphine to break down? How heat-stable is the molecule?

    • That is an excellent question. I’m not sure if the poppy seeds on bagels are cooked (toasted a bit, perhaps?), but on Mythbusters, eating poppy seed bread (containing poppy seeds that had been baked in) was shown to trigger drug test failure… which means that a substantial amount of morphine was still intact. However, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect some degree of decomposition upon baking or brewing.

      Overall though, the chemical structure doesn’t look particularly unstable: no strongly electrophilic sites, no highly strained rings, or unusually homolytically weak bonds, etc. I would buy that, tucked inside the relatively dry poppy seed, morphine doesn’t break down too much after an hour at 350 ºF (~180 ºC).

      • Vsughb says:

        Certain chemicals in opium(poppy) are destroyed when they are burnt, so I guess partially

  6. havoc says:

    I think this should be the type of cake you should try:
    cakes like that are pretty common in germany.

    poppy seeds -> Mohn in Germany

    science + bakery for the win

  7. Richard says:

    As a culinary school graduate who smokes his own salmon, my only response is to
    say: It will take a lot of lox to help those bagels go down. At least the fish has the

  8. Safety note. While chemistry and math can be buckets full of fun, trying to get high off of poppy seeds can be extremely dangerous. See David Kroll’s post (link below) on poppy seed tea related fatalities.

    The danger can be somewhat explained by the Journal of Forensic Sciences article mentioned above – opioid content in poppy seeds is very variable from batch to batch. Thus, one brew of poppy seed tea could be very weakly mind-altering, while tea made from a different batch of poppy seeds could deliver a fatal dose of drugs. So…. nobody get any crazy ideas.

  9. angryrat says:

    Interesting article, but someone puzzling.
    Mostly in Central and Eastern Europe poppy seeds are ground up and used as a filling for strudels and other cakes -easily more than your prescribed amount for a dose/strudel. And these are very popular -you get them in pre-schools, too…
    That would make every man, woman and child a regular morphine-junkie in the region, with the appropriate effects – which is obviously not the case. Either something’s amiss with the calculation, or people in that part of the world really are junkies, just no one notices as everyone’s high all the time… I need to read about this more, but what a quick search found was that the average opiate content of poppy seeds were 58.4 to 62.2 µg/g seeds in strains sold for consumption, making it five times less as your calculation.
    That said, if I eat a lot of poppy-containing pastry, ~sometimes ~ I do get a headache.

    • Yup, these calculations are based on the poppy seeds with the most morphine content. As I mentioned above, most poppy seeds have like 100 times less morphine.

  10. Taylor says:

    This gives me a whole new perspective for the next time I eye up a poppy seed bagel or piece of bunt cake laced with poppy seeds.

    The drug test thing is also a bit unsettling. I hadn’t heard this before and am glad you have drawn it to my attention for future reference.

  11. Ali says:

    I have soaked 1 or 2 cups of poppy seeds in lemon juice for about an hour; the acidic juice eats through the skin of the seed and releases the opium. I then strained the juice into a cup, added cold water and heaps of honey, and ice. I can attest the resulting drink is more potent than many of the prescription pill opiates. My flatmate was studying to be a pharmacologist so I felt comfortable with his assurance that I wouldn’t die, but I could see it becoming as addictive as anything else. So yes, you can get a dose from just seeds. Carefully.

  12. Paul says:

    I tested positive for “heroin” yesterday at my Dr’s office. I have been on morphine MSIR and MS Sulfate for 5+ years. I am now reading that you can test positive for Heroin when you take morphine for long periods of time. Is this true? He acted like I was a drug seeker being that he is a relatively new “pain management” for me. Any ideas or other info that will help me?

  13. Poppies and poppers says:

    I made poppy seed tea mixing about 2 pounds of tea in about a liter of pineapple juice in bottles. In the evening I shook the bottles a few times briefly over the course of around an hour, enjoyed drinking the result, and felt mildly buzzed for the night.
    The next morning I refilled the bottles with water multiple times and the mixture was still potent enough to produce some mild effects.

  14. generale says:

    So I just need to soak to cups in lemon juice, then mix it into a drink

  15. bree says:

    So if you eat poppy seeds muffins 3 times a day breakfast,dinner,supper can you get a physical addiction for a month.

  16. Fabiola Freeman says:

    I am from Austria and if you walk in any of our wonderful bakeries, you will find all sorts of rolls and “weckerl” covered with poppy seed. And there are numerous cakes and pastries that contain quite an amount of poppy seed. Children are growing up eating these delicious breads and sweets and its almost daily part of our diet, the same as it is in Germany Hungary and Czech Republic. I have never heard of anyone get addicted or getting medical symptoms of any sort! What a NONSENSE!!!!!!

  17. Karma says:

    Maybe you are all addicted and just haven’t known to think about it. If its such a HUGE part of your diet maybe that has something to do about it? IDK, something to think about.

  18. elishebabb says:

    Ate a few slices of poppy seed challah before yom kippur … was dizzy from morning to afternoon and felt like I was in a cloud of light visually ( was not low blood glucose nor low blood pressure) . Some people’s blood is like spring water.

  19. Janet says:

    I thought it was all in my head at first, but I swear when I eat half a row of these boxed lemon poppy seed cookies that I buy, I feel relaxed a a bit – sometimes it depends on the day sometimes I feel really zoned out!