If you’ve never experienced the taste of saffron, many a gourmand would say you’re missing out. With a flavor described as simply indescribable, the so-called king of spices is an indispensable ingredient in many gourmet dishes. But saffron is also the most expensive spice in the world. In fact, the spice is considered so valuable that it’s known as red gold, as it can cost as much as $65 for a single gram. What’s more, saffron is considered one of the healthiest spices on the planet. But are saffron health benefits worth the expensive price tag? Read on to find out.
Saffron: A Brief History
The spice we know as saffron comes from the red stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) bulb, a domesticated species whose true origin is unknown, with some sources saying the first plants were cultivated in Iran and others pointing to Greece.
Saffron has been prized by cultures throughout the world for at least 3,000 years and has a long history of use as spice, pigment, perfume, religious offering, and medicine. Saffron has traditionally been used to treat everything from anxiety and depression to irregular menstrual cycles, poor vision, infections, skin problems, respiratory and heart conditions, and nervous system disorders.
But the reason saffron comes with such a hefty price tag is that it’s incredibly labor-intensive to produce. Not only is the harvest performed completely by hand, but the saffron flowers also produce only three stigmas, and each bulb produces only one flower. Which means it takes approximately 4,500 flowers to produce 1 ounce of saffron!
But what potent strands they are—just one strand can color up to 10 gallons of water!
Saffron is also a monomorphic clone, and all plants are male, which means it can’t reproduce on its own and must be manually propagated either by dividing and setting a clone that’s just getting started or by hybridizing two related species.
As mentioned, the flavor of saffron is difficult to describe, and its taste appears to depend on the individual. While some find it bitter, others find it almost sweet, and still others describe it as floral, with a hay-like aroma and metallic overtones.
However you describe it, people agree that you know saffron when you taste it, and you either love it or hate it.
Saffron Health Benefits
While saffron contains respectable amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and manganese, its real power lies in its more than 150 volatile compounds as well as important phytonutrients, including flavonoids called anthocyanins as well as the carotenoids safranal, crocin, picrocrocin, crocetinzeaxanthin, lycopene, and beta-carotene.
Not only are its polyphenols and carotenoids powerful antioxidants that can fight free radicals and reduce oxidative stress, as well as anti-inflammatories that can relieve pain and reduce the risk of chronic disease, but they’ve also been found to lift the spirit, reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), promote weight loss, increase eyesight in people with age-related macular degeneration, and improve memory in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
However, when it comes to the health benefits of saffron, studies have found that four compounds—safranal, crocin, picrocrocin, crocetin—are the main active components responsible for many of the medicinal properties attributed to this ancient spice.
Let’s now take a closer look at what some of the research is telling us.
A meta-analysis in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology found that saffron demonstrates significant free radical–scavenging capabilities as well as antitumor activity.
Another meta-analysis published in the journal Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry echoed these findings, indicating that the antioxidant properties of saffron and its carotenoids help prevent cancer. What’s more, saffron has been shown to cause cancer cell death, inhibit cancer cell growth and proliferation, and modulate immune system function.
A study in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology found that the carotenoid crocin has antioxidant, antitumor, memory-enhancing, antidepressant, anxiolytic, and aphrodisiac properties.
A study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that saffron extract was as effective as the antidepressant fluoxetine in treating symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
In addition, a recent meta-analysis in the journal Planta Medica looking at clinical trials involving patients with mild to moderate depression found that saffron had a positive effect on the severity of depressive symptoms and was overall “non-inferior” to the antidepressant drugs tested.
A recent meta-analysis in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine studying women and men with symptoms of sexual dysfunction found that saffron had a positive effect on sexual function in both sexes, even improving erectile dysfunction in men.
Multiple studies have documented the beneficial effects of saffron on blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with animal studies indicating that saffron may lower cholesterol by as much as 50%. And a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Tehran Heart Center concluded that saffron’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components help reduce the risk of heart disease by strengthening the heart and blood vessels.
A study in the Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal found that the carotenoid safranal possesses significant antibacterial activity against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). And a study published in the European Journal of Pharmaceutical and Medical Research looking at the effects of saffron on the treatment of multidrug-resistant organisms found that the spice exhibited significant activity against Escherichia coli, MRSA, and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus.
A rodent study in the Indian Heart Journal found that an extract of saffron decreased blood sugar and lipid levels and increased levels of antioxidants, leading researchers to conclude that saffron may be useful in the treatment of both type 2 diabetes and its cardiovascular complications.
A study published in the journal Food Chemistry had similar findings and showed that saffron increases glucose uptake and improves insulin sensitivity.
A number of studies have found that the antioxidants in saffron can reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. For example, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology found that saffron was as effective as donepezil in the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease but had fewer side effects.
Another study in the journal Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences found that saffron can reduce oxidative stress as well as the memory and learning deficits associated with multiple sclerosis.
A study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that saffron supplementation led to long-term improvement in retinal function in patients with early signs of age-related macular degeneration.
How to Spot Fake Saffron
Because saffron is so expensive, there are some unscrupulous manufacturers out there that like to pawn off dyed corn silk, safflower, or even beef as the valuable spice. So if you’re looking to add fresh saffron to your diet, it’s important to know how to tell real saffron from the imposters.
Perhaps the easiest way to identify real saffron from fake is to look for the characteristic fluted, almost trumpet-like shape of saffron threads—a shape that’s maintained even after soaking in water for several days. Real saffron added to water also releases a golden yellow hue.
In addition, real saffron has an intense, earthy aroma, like a cross between honey and hay, and a bitter, astringent flavor.
Experts also recommend that you avoid ground saffron, as it’s generally adulterated with other spices, like turmeric or paprika. And remember that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, so if you run across cheap saffron, you can bet it’s not the real thing.
How to Get More Saffron in Your Diet
While it’s certainly more expensive than any other spice in your kitchen, a little saffron goes a long way. So if you’re a lover of saffron-heavy cuisine, you’ll probably find that you’re more than getting your money’s worth—and you can always grow your own too!
What’s more, saffron is available from several reputable manufacturers as a dietary supplement, so if you’re not a fan of the taste—and, remember, some people aren’t—you can always swallow a capsule instead.
But whether you choose fresh saffron threads or saffron supplements, this exotic spice is sure to enhance your cuisine and your health.