What is Saffron?
Saffron is produced from the dried stigmas of a beautiful little autumn-flowering crocus (Crocus sativus) and it’s literally worth its weight in gold.
This exotic spice lends its golden color, pungent flavour, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes to both sweet and savoury dishes, as well as drinks.
The ancient Persians cultivated saffron in the 10th century BC as a dye, perfume and medicine. They added it to hot teas to treat bouts of melancholy. Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian Empire, had it sprinkled in his bath water as a royal body wash. Alexander the Great and his forces learned of this practice and, taken with saffron’s perceived curative properties, brought the custom back with them to Macedonia.
Each hand-picked crocus blossom contains three red stigmas which are dried and fermented slightly to produce the spice. Harvesting and processing the stigmas is a fiddly and labour-intensive business, not suited to mechanisation.
It takes 14,000 stigmas to produce one ounce (28 grams) of product, so you can see why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice! A little goes a very long way, however, so you can regularly enjoy its culinary and other properties without breaking your budget.
Health Benefits of Saffron
Dr Subhuti Dharmananda, director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine (Portland, Oregon, USA) notes in Saffron: An anti-depressant herb that for centuries Middle Eastern people have used saffron to relieve stomach-aches, kidney stones, and improve blood circulation.
Other traditional medicinal uses for saffron include:
- Treating acne (when applied topically)
- Regulating menstruation
- Easing coughs and asthmatic breathing
- Reducing fever and inflammation
- Calming nervousness
- Alleviating depression
Dr Dharmananda says in Tibet saffron is considered a tonic for the heart and nervous system, and is commonly used in medicinal incenses.
Science is now examining these claims with exciting results, particularly in the areas of mental health and cancer research.
A raft of studies conducted over the last 15 years supports what Middle Eastern countries have known for centuries: saffron lifts mood and eases anxiety.
A 2014 review of six clinical studies confirmed that saffron is just as effective at treating mild-to-molderate depression as Prozac.
There is increasing scientific interest in saffron for its anti-cancer properties. A summary of studies examining these can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3996758/. A key finding was that crocin and crocetin in saffron have significant anti-cancer activity in breast, lung, pancreatic and leukemic cells
Chinese medicine has long used saffron to improve blood circulation and cure bruises. The active ingredient Crocetin may also lower triglycerides in the body and help in the treatment of atherosclerosis and arthritis. According to this paper, saffron has been shown in animal studies to reduce cholesterol by up to 50 per cent.
Saffron’s antioxidant properties are due to Safranal, an efficient free radical scavenger. The spice’s anti-inflammatory effects are also beneficial for cardiovascular health.
This article cites six different studies indicating that saffron is an effective weapon against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the commonest cause of blindness in the elderly. See also this 2010 University of Sydney study.
Saffron has long been used to boost sexual desire and science now agrees—the Crocin in the spice is the agent responsible. A 2012 study into the effects of saffron on women with major depression also showed a pronounced aphrodisiac result.
Saffron is generally viewed as safe when used as flavoring in food or as a medicinal supplement of up to 1.5 g daily. To avoid saffron poisoning or toxicity, take therapeutic doses of less than 5 g daily.