Saffron – A Valuable Spice in More Ways Than One
Saffron with its wonderful colors and fragrance is one of the world’s most valuable spices and is also the most expensive. It is sourced from the Crocus sativus L plant which belongs to the lily family.
In order to produce the spice, the flower’s stigmas are handpicked in a painstaking manner then cut from the style before being laid out on a sieve to be cured. So incredibly labor intensive is the process that the cost of saffron is higher than any other spice in the world.
Saffron is produced commercially in Greece, Spain, Italy, Morocco and Kashmir but Iran is the world’s largest producer of the spice.
Apart from its amazing colors and wonderful fragrance, saffron can also benefit your health in a number of impressive ways. So if money is not an object and you are lucky enough to be in possession of some of this magical spice, read on to find out what exactly it can do for you and how you can use it.
- Saffron was mentioned by the Old testament along with aloe, myrrh, cinnamon and calamus as one of the most precious of spices. Only priestesses and other women of very high status could harvest the spice.
- The ancient Greeks indicate the value of saffron by describing Zeus as having a bed made of saffron. The Greeks referred to the spice as the ‘Blood of Hercules’ using it as an incense in rituals and for protection.
- The Phoenicians served saffron cakes to honor the moon and the Goddess of fertility – Ashtoreth.
- Ancient Mediterranean civilizations associated the spice with strength, sexual potency and fertility.
- Ancient Egyptian healers prescribed saffron for gastrointestinal conditions.
- The Romans used saffron to relieve respiratory problems and speed up wound healing.
- Ayurvedic practitioners in India have used saffron as a sedative, an expectorant, and an emmenagogue.
- Other traditional uses of the spice include treating spasms, colds, bronchitis, fevers and insomnia.
- More recently, saffron has been used for various medicinal issues. It has been used to protect against cancer, for its anti-inflammatory actions and certain cognitive issues.
The Health Benefits of Saffron
It may be extremely expensive but saffron does come with a variety of excellent health benefits. A growing body of research suggests that saffron could benefit your heart, help protect against cancer, treat symptoms of PMS and more.
1) Heart Health
Recent research has revealed that saffron may improve cardiovascular health especially in people with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome and has been linked to heat shock proteins or HSPs while atherosclerosis has also been linked to these HSPs.
In one recent study, researchers set out to investigate the effects of saffron on the antibody titers to heat shock proteins in a group of patients diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. 105 patients were divided into separate groups and either treated daily with 100 milligrams of saffron or a placebo. At the end of the three-month study, the antibodies to HSPs 27 and 70 had reduced significantly in the group treated with saffron. (1)
2) Cancer Prevention
In the battle against cancer, researchers have left few stones unturned and have increasingly been looking to nature to find a natural cure. Among the many herbs that have been examined for their anticancer potential is saffron and preliminary research has proved very positive.
In one double-blind study published in 2015, the effect of saffron was evaluated on thirteen patients with liver metastasis. The patients were divided into two groups both of which continued to receive chemotherapy treatment. One group was treated with 50 milligrams of saffron twice a day while the other was given a placebo.
Although 6 of the participants quit the study before the end, the results were interesting. Two of the four remaining participants in the saffron group showed a complete response to the treatment. Researchers suggested saffron may be a useful treatment for people suffering with liver metastasis or other types of cancer. (2)
3) Erectile Dysfunction
Saffron has been used through the ages to boost male libido with one of its constituents – crocin often touted for its aphrodisiac qualities.
Researchers have put this traditional use to the test by looking at the effects of saffron on erectile dysfunction – a common condition affecting a growing number of men. A pilot study involving 20 men with erectile dysfunction gave the participants 200 milligrams of saffron each day for ten days.
After ten days treatment with saffron the participants experienced significant improvements in penile rigidity and tumescence. Treatment with the herb also resulted on positive effects with regard to sexual function. These included increase duration of erection and number of erections experienced. (3)
4) For Depression and Anxiety
Indications from preliminary research are that saffron could be used to help overcome common emotional conditions like depression and anxiety. This is no great surprise since the spice has long been used in Persia by traditional practitioners to treat depression.
A six-week trial conducted in 2004 set out to evaluate the effects of saffron on patients with mild or moderate depression specifically comparing the spice to a commonly prescribed antidepressant – Imipramine.
Thirty patients diagnosed with depression took part in the study with half given 30 milligrams a day of saffron and the other half treated with 100 milligrams a day of imipramine. After 6 weeks of treatment, researchers found that saffron was just as effective as the antidepressant drug in treating mild cases of depression. (4)
As well as its effects on depression, saffron appears to be a promising treatment for people suffering from anxiety. In a study published in 2016, 60 participants with both depression and anxiety received either 50 milligrams of saffron each day or were given a placebo for a period of 12 weeks. The researchers found that supplementation with saffron had a significant positive effect on both depression and anxiety compared with those given the placebo. (5)
5) For Premenstrual Syndrome
PMS is one of the most common complaints affecting women during their reproductive age with up to 40% affected. Because of saffron’s known antispasmodic abilities, researcher in Iran set out to assess whether it could help alleviate some of the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
Women aged between 20 and 45 who had experienced the symptoms of PMS for 6 months or more took part in the study. They were either given 15 milligrams of saffron twice daily or a placebo for two menstrual cycles.
Results showed that the women who took the saffron capsules experienced significant improvements with regard to their PMS symptoms and also depression ratings. These improvements compared favorably with both their symptoms prior to treatment and when compared to women given the placebo. (6)
6) Weight Loss
It is possible that supplementing with saffron could help people to lose weight by helping them feel full.
A study conducted on Malaysia in 2013 set out to evaluate the ability of saffron to promote satiety. The female participants were either given saffron capsules twice each day or a placebo for two months. By the end of the study, those given the saffron had lost more weight than the placebo group and noted a decrease in their snacking between meals. (7)
The researchers concluded that saffron may help to treat people with obesity by working to curb the appetite.
Nutritional Value of Saffron
A tablespoon (2 grams) of saffron contains just 6 calories and 1.3 grams of carbohydrates. Saffron also contains decent levels of manganese and vitamin C. It also contains smaller amounts of various other minerals including iron, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium.
How to Use Saffron
The part of the flower called the stigma is used to make the spice that we see on the shelves. It has been available throughout history either ground or as whole stigmas or threads. The threads are considered to have a superior quality and flavor.
The spice is valued for its incredible aroma and flavor as well as its vibrant colors. There are no good substitutes for the herb and you should be careful to avoid confusing it with inferior safflower. The flavor is spicy and a little bitter and is often used to flavor various savory dishes including rice, meat, poultry and vegetable dishes as well as in baked products. Saffron threads add a wonderful pungent flavor as well as an incredible deep orange color to your dish.
Saffron can be found in many specialty stores and markets. Because of its very high value, saffron is often stored in a secure area away from the usual shelves. If you do not see any, it may be worth asking a staff member if they stock the spice. It is usually sold in wooden boxes or packed on foil to protect the spice from harsh environmental conditions like air and light.
Precautions and Side Effects
Combining large doses of saffron with certain other supplements or herbs with hypotensive actions may increase your risk of low blood pressure. Examples of other herbs and supplements include cat’s claw, CoQ10, stinging nettle, theanine and lycium.
Consuming very large amounts of saffron – 5 grams or more can result in saffron poisoning. Symptoms include :
- bloody diarrhea
- a yellow pigmentation to the skin and mucous membranes
- bleeding to various parts of the body including the nose, lips, eyelids and uterus.
- Pregnant women should avoid using saffron.