A new mother's traumatizing experience sheds light on the urban legend. 

By Amanda MacMillan
August 09, 2018

You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale: Don’t eat a poppy-seed bagel if you might need a drug test in the near future. But is there any real truth to this crazy-sounding rumor? One new mom found out the hard way—at pretty much the worst possible time—that, in fact, there is.

WBAL TV reported this week that back in April, Maryland resident Elizabeth Eden went into labor and was admitted to St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson to deliver her daughter. But before she gave birth, her doctors informed her that she’d tested positive for opioids. Per hospital policy, the mom-to-be had also been reported to state officials.

Eden had eaten a poppy-seed bagel for breakfast that morning, and she remembered learning in health class that this could potentially trigger a false positive drug test result. But the hospital had already set the wheels in motion: Because of her test result, Eden’s daughter had to stay in the hospital for five days after she was born, while a caseworker was assigned to conduct a home checkup. “It was traumatizing,” Eden said.

This type of misunderstanding is pretty surprising, but it’s also not the first time something like this has happened. Here’s a quick look at the history of—and the science behind—this unfortunate side effect.

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Why do poppy seeds affect drug tests?

It may seem like this popular baked-good flavoring has nothing to do with illicit and addictive opioid drugs like morphine, codeine, and heroin. But actually, they all come from the same place: the poppy plant.

While poppy seeds used in food are produced legally, they can still contain the same chemicals that show up on drug tests for opioid substances. This has been documented several times in medical literature. In a 1997 case report in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, for example, a patient tested positive for a morphine-like drug, even though she swore she wasn’t taking any drugs her doctor hadn’t prescribed.

When asked to describe her diet, the patient stated that “her bagel preference was cinnamon raisin, but if cinnamon raisin was not available, her second preference was for poppy-seed bagels.” Unsure as to whether this would alter her drug test results, the patient’s doctors performed an experiment: They asked her not to have any poppy-seed bagels for two weeks, then they tested her urine before and after she ate half of one in their office.

The tests confirmed it: The patient’s urine tests were negative for morphine before she ate the bagel, but positive—with a concentration of 446 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL)—two hours afterward. Five hours after eating the bagel, her morphine level had decreased to a still detectable 336 ng/mL. Her doctors concluded that urine “may remain positive from 24 to 48 hours after ingestion,” depending on the test used.

Other research has shown that just a teaspoon of poppy seeds can raise opioid levels to 1,200 ng/mL. That’s under the 2,000 ng/mL federal limit set by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1998 for a positive drug test—but St. Joseph Medical Center still uses an older limit of just 300 ng/ml. Hospital staff told WBAL TV that they keep their threshold low to be sure they identify as many drug mis-users as possible.

Eden is not alone in her experience of being falsely categorized as a drug abuser. In fact, she's not even the first new mom who had her child taken away—temporarily—after failing a post-poppy seed drug test: The same thing happened to two other women in 2013 and 2014. A jail guard in New York who was recently fired for failing a drug test has evoked the "poppy-seed bagel defense," and a similar storyline was even featured on the television show Seinfeld.

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So, can poppy seeds get you high?

As far as scientific research goes, there’s no evidence that eating poppy seeds can actually get a person high. In one 1992 study, the Oregon State Police Crime Library evaluated seven people who’d eaten 25 grams of poppy seeds (baked into bundt cakes) for signs of opioid impairment–but found none.

There have, however, been a few reported instances of people becoming addicted to poppy seeds: In 1994, doctors wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia that a 51-year-old patient with chronic pain “noticed a growing fondness for poppy seed noodles” and subsequently began buying packets of seeds alone.

The patient told doctors that she would fill her mouth with the seeds and suck them until they were dry, and that she would get a “tingling sensation in her body, followed by a feeling of euphoria.” Eventually, she was eating the seeds five or six times a day, “and became restless if she extended the time between ingestions.”

More recently, a 2010 case report in Drug and Alcohol Review discussed an 82-year-old woman in India who had become dependent on poppy-seed tea over the past 55 years. She was brought in for treatment when access to the tea became difficult following new legal restrictions.

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How worried should you be about eating poppy seeds?

Those reports of dependence are extreme cases, of course—not something that would happen from eating one poppy-seed bagel, or even eating them on a regular basis. But it is smart to be aware that even a tiny amount of those seeds can still cause a drug test to come back positive, even if you don’t have any symptoms of opioid use.

After the misunderstanding at St. Joseph Medical Center was cleared up, the state closed Eden’s case file and allowed her baby to come home. But the new mom is hoping the hospital will change its testing threshold so the same thing doesn’t happen to other unlucky patients.

Judith Pratt Rossiter, MD, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at St. Joseph, told WBAL TV that doctors generally have not educated patients about the potential side effect of poppy-seed bagels, “and it’s a really good point that people probably should know” about it.

Perhaps the best advice we’ve seen on this topic is from Boston Medical Center’s Jack Maypole, MD, in a 2013 article for the National Institute of Drug Abuse for Teens: “To all you poppy seed lovers out there,” he wrote: “They can be a tasty treat in favorite foods, but may be one to avoid before undergoing drug testing.”

“Keep things simple,” he added. “Try an onion bagel instead.”

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