Saffron is taken from the stigmas of the saffron crocus, a member of the lily family. The stigma is the part of the flower that catches the pollen.
Saffron is harvested in the hours just before sunrise, while the crocus petals remain closed; this makes the flowers easier to pick and helps protect the crimson-red stigmas. The delicate buds are usually hand picked.
On the same day, the stigma, three tiny threads per flower, are separated from the petals. It is a delicate process that takes hours with a skilled and patient hand. Then, the stigmas are dried, often on an open fires, adding to the richness of the color and flavor.
It takes roughly 4,000 flowers to make one ounce of saffron powder. No wonder that it is the most expensive spice in the world. Due to the intense labor in cultivating, harvesting, and handling, saffron – which can cost around $260 an ounce in the American market – is often referred to as “Red Gold.”
Saffron is used to flavor dishes like bouillabaisse and paella, but saffron extract has a long history in herbal medicine spanning over 2,500 years. According to a review study from 2014, it’s been used in various countries to treat skin disease, respiratory issues, poor vision, pain, mental illness, gynecological problems, erectile dysfunction, and infections.
More than 150 chemicals are present in saffron, but the key ones are crocetin and crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, which are responsible for saffron’s color, taste, and odor.
These compounds are all strong antioxidants, molecules that protect cells against free radicals and oxidative stress, and scientists propose that many of saffron’s beneficial effects can be attributed to them.
Crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments and responsible for saffron’s red color. Both compounds may have antidepressant properties, protect brain cells against progressive damage, improve inflammation, reduce appetite, and aid weight loss. Test-tube studies have found that crocin may make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy drugs.
Safranal gives saffron its distinct taste and aroma. Research shows that it may help improve your mood, memory, and learning ability, as well as protect your brain cells against oxidative stress.
Kaempferol is found in saffron flower petals. This compound has been linked to health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, anticancer properties, and antidepressant activity.
In test-tube studies, saffron and its compounds have been shown to selectively kill colon cancer cells or suppress their growth, while leaving normal cells unharmed. This effect also applies to skin, bone marrow, prostate, lung, breast, cervix, and several other cancer cells.
Saffron is nicknamed the “sunshine spice.” That’s not just due to its distinct color, but also because it may help brighten your mood. In a review of five studies, saffron supplements were significantly more effective than placebos at treating symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression.
Other studies found that taking 30 mg of saffron daily was just as effective as Fluoxetine, Imipramine, and Citalopram – conventional treatments for depression. Additionally, fewer people experienced side effects from saffron compared to other treatments.
Both the saffron petals and thread-like stigma appear to be effective against mild-to-moderate depression.
In women 20 – 45 years of age, taking 30 mg of saffron daily was more effective than a placebo at treating PMS symptoms, such as irritability, headaches, cravings, and pain. Another study found that simply smelling saffron for 20 minutes helped reduce PMS symptoms like anxiety and lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Saffron may have aphrodisiac properties for both men and women and may especially help those taking antidepressants.
Saffron has been shown to reduce snacking and curb your appetite. In one eight-week study, women taking saffron supplements felt significantly more full, snacked less frequently, and lost significantly more weight than women in the placebo group. In another eight-week study, taking a saffron extract supplement helped significantly reduce appetite, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and total fat mass. It is thought that saffron elevates your mood, which in turn reduces your desire to snack.
May reduce heart disease risk factors: Animal and test-tube studies indicate that saffron’s antioxidant properties may lower blood cholesterol and prevent blood vessels and arteries from clogging.
May lower blood sugar levels: Saffron may lower blood sugar levels and raise insulin sensitivity — as seen in test-tube studies and mice with diabetes.
May improve eyesight in adults with age-related macular degeneration (AMD): Saffron appears to improve eyesight in adults with AMD and protect against free radical damage, which is linked to AMD.
May improve memory in adults with Alzheimer’s disease: Saffron’s antioxidant properties may improve cognition in adults with Alzheimer’s disease .
How to Buy
Saffron is readily available at most specialty markets and can be purchased as threads or in powdered form. However, it’s best to buy the threads, as they give you more versatility and are less likely to be adulterated.
It’s important to keep in mind when shopping for supplements that mixing saffron with materials like beet, pomegranate fibers, and red-dyed silk fibers sometimes occurs as a way of decreasing its cost. Researchers report that the yellow stamens of saffron have also been mixed with the saffron powder. Sometimes the flowers of other plants, particularly safflower, marigold, arnica, and tinted grasses, are fraudulently mixed with the genuine stigmas. Turmeric, paprika, and other substances have also been combined with saffron powder.
When saffron is used for therapeutic purposes, adulterations make it completely useless or even harmful.
When buying saffron supplements, be wary of products that list “Indian saffron,” “American saffron,” or “Mexican saffron,” which are common ways of mislabeling the herb turmeric. Make sure to purchase saffron from a reputable brand or store to avoid an adulterated or mislabeled product.
How to Store
Keep in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place for up to six months for maximum flavor. Saffron, like other herbs and spices, is sensitive to light, so keep it out of direct light. Saffron will not spoil, but it will lose increasingly more and more of its flavor with age.
How to Cook
In small doses, saffron has a subtle taste and aroma and pairs well with savory dishes, such as paella, risottos, and other rice dishes. Though saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, a small amount goes a long way, and you often won’t need more than a pinch in your recipes. In fact, using too much saffron can give your recipes an overpowering medicinal taste.
The best way to draw out saffron’s unique flavor is to soak the threads in hot, but not boiling, water. Add the threads and the liquid to your recipe.
As a dietary supplement, up to 1.5 grams of saffron can be safely taken per day. It’s considered toxic when ingested at doses higher than five grams and could be lethal at doses of more than 20 grams a day.
Clinical studies have evaluated doses ranging from 20 mg a day to 400 mg a day, though the most common effective doses being applied in clinical trials are 30 mg to 50 mg a day.