Mmm … saffron, such a flavoursome and useful spice, but there is more to it than that so read on.
Initially it is worth noting that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Nevertheless, it has a long history of use as a flavouring agent essential to a broad range of dishes from Swedish saffron buns to Spanish paella, Persian rice dishes and Indian curries.
Actually, saffron use dates back 3000–4000 years with records found in Persian, Greco–Roman and Egyptian cultures. From here it spread first to India and China and much later to other parts of North Africa and Europe. While saffron’s origin is still debated, it most likely originated in old Persia. There, as in other countries, it was revered not only for its flavour but also for its perceived medicinal properties. People would eat saffron to enhance libido, boost mood, and improve memory. Cleopatra used it to infuse her bathwater. Alexander the Great bathed his battle wounds with it and drank saffron tea.
So what is saffron?
Saffron is derived from the saffron crocus plant (Crocus sativus) related to the lily. It is a domesticated autumn-flowering perennial plant unknown in the wild. Being sterile, its purple flowers fail to produce viable seeds. Instead reproduction depends on humans digging up and replanting bulb-like organs called corms. A corm survives for one season, producing via vegetative division up to ten cormlets that can grow into new plants in the next season.
The dried thread-like parts of the flower called stigmas are used to make saffron spice, food colouring and medicine.
The high retail value of saffron is maintained on world markets because of labour-intensive harvesting methods, which makes its production costly. One freshly picked crocus flower yields on average 30 mg of fresh or 7 mg of dried saffron threads. Some forty hours of labour are needed to harvest 150,000 flowers and hand-pick 440,000 red stigmas from the flowers that after heating and curing yield a kilogram of dried saffron.
Health impact of saffron
Saffron has long been used in traditional medicine to treat menstrual problems, depression, asthma and sexual dysfunction. It contains an impressive variety of plant compounds acting as antioxidants – molecules that protect cells against free radicals and oxidative stress. These compounds include crocin and crocetin that are carotenoid pigments responsible for saffron’s red colour, safranal that gives saffron its distinct aroma and picrocrocin producing the bitter taste, among several other compounds. Together they are believed to be responsible for the observed beneficial effects identified in initial scientific trials covering conditions from memory loss to cancer.
Although early evidence has been inconclusive, this is starting to change with reports of results from new scientific studies.
A review of ten randomised controlled trials involving unhealthy subjects showed that saffron supplementation clearly improved oxidative stress through its antioxidant activity, a general indicator of beneficial health effects.
Summarising nineteen studies, more specific results indicated that saffron significantly reduced fasting blood glucose, waist circumference, diastolic blood pressure, concentrations of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and improved symptoms of depression, cognitive function and sexual dysfunction compared with controls (mainly placebos).
Scientists studying the effects of saffron on sleep quality in healthy adults with self-reported poor sleep completed a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Saffron intake was associated with larger improvements in sleep quality in adults than the placebo.
A further overview of the scientific literature pointed to a consistent and significant improvement of depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment associated with the daily intake of moderate quantities of saffron extracts. The effects seemed to be comparable to those of specific pharmacological treatments and appeared to be generally well tolerated with no major adverse effects associated with its daily consumption.
Indeed, it is now beyond doubt that saffron and especially its main constituent molecules (crocins, crocetin, picrocrocin and safranal) exert beneficial effects on frequent neuropsychiatric (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.) and age-related diseases (cardiovascular, ocular, neurodegenerative diseases and sarcopenia).
So all fine then?
Well yes, it seems to be fine from a scientific point of view. Saffron provides clear health benefits in reasonable doses of 20, 30 or 50 mg per day in the trials. But there is one remaining problem apart from the price and it is saffron adulteration.
Despite attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of saffron adulteration continues into modern times. Adulteration was first documented in Europe’s Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code.
Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beetroot, pomegranate fibres, red-dyed silk fibres, or the saffron crocus’s tasteless and odourless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibres with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil to increase their weight. Powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Safflower is a common substitute sometimes sold as saffron.
In recent years, saffron adulterated with the colouring extract of gardenia fruits has been detected in the European market. This form of fraud is difficult to detect due to the presence of flavonoids and crocines in the gardenia-extracts similar to those naturally occurring in saffron. Detection methods have been developed by using HPLC and mass spectrometry to determine the presence of geniposide, a compound present in the fruits of gardenia, but not in saffron.
Counter methods you can take!
All is not lost if you’re a little clever about it.
First, don’t buy bargain saffron as there is a reason for the high price of high quality saffron. The adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is most relevant in this case.
Second, check that the saffron strands are frayed at one end and look for a deep red hue that colours water orangey-yellow when submerged.
Finally, smell it and put it on your tongue – fake saffron has very little aroma or flavour while real saffron will smell slightly fruity and floral and taste sweet and bitter at the same time.
And after all that you can enjoy the wonderful taste of your saffron dishes and potential health benefits at the same time.