If you thought vanilla powder was expensive, you’re in for a shock with saffron. Considered the 24-karat gold of spices, saffron is one of the world’s most precious and expensive spices. It has a rich history that goes back millenniums and has been used by pharaohs, kings, and chefs alike for culinary, aesthetic, and medicinal purposes.
Despite the many tales that have been told about the spice, you might still not fathom why anyone would spend $5,000 for a pound of saffron. The answer lies within what it offers to us as humans. In this article, we will dive into saffron’s several health benefits. In addition, we will answer some of its frequently asked questions.
What is Saffron?
Prized for its unique flavor in dishes and medicinal properties, saffron (Kesar) is a vivid, crimson-colored spice with global appeal. The perennial spice is largely cultivated in Iran, Afghanistan, Spain, among other countries, and mainly harvested by hand.
Saffron is derived from the flower of a plant called Crocus sativus. The flower has a light purple color with vibrant red thread-like stigmas. These stigmas, or threads, are where pollen germinates, and they are dried to make saffron spice.
To make just one pound of saffron, 225,000 stigmas from 75,000 blossoms are needed. The stigmas are often painstakingly handpicked and dried. It can be sold in its original thread form or powdery form, which is achieved by grinding. Saffron’s labor-intensive and meticulous harvesting system is the root cause of its hefty price.
Saffron can be used as a food ingredient, preservative, coloring agent, pharmaceutical, or medicine. You’ll likely find saffron in one of two from, either in thread form or powder form. Saffron is a culinary spice that adds great flavor and color to the food. It enriches dishes like risotto, paella, pulao rice, and khoreshes (stew dishes in Iranian cuisine). It is also added to a vast array of seafood, meat, rice, and dessert recipes. That is why you’ll find saffron in the spice rack of many chefs and home cooks.
Aside from its usefulness in the kitchen, many people are captivated by the health benefits of saffron. In fact, saffron extract has a long history in herbal medicine.
Benefits of Saffron
Saffron is easily one of the most valuable medicinal food products in the world. For over 4,000 years, it has been used for its potent medicinal properties to treat over 90 health conditions and ailments. For example, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, saffron had been used for pain relief during various opioid preparations.
Saffron has many health claims, which include the ability to help or treat skin disease, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory issues, pain, poor vision, cancer, mental illness, gastrointestinal issues, gynecological problems, erectile dysfunction, insomnia, and infections. Other medicinal properties of saffron include being a memory enhancer, antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, neuroprotective, and cardioprotective agent.
Saffron’s medicinal powers don’t come from thin air; they come from its active components. It possesses over 100 biologically active compounds, with crocetin, crocin, safranal, and picrocrocin being the major bioactive constituents.
Not only are those components responsible for saffron’s color, taste, and odor, but they are also responsible for many of its biological properties. For example, those phytochemicals have anti-inflammatory, antioxidation, antidepressant, and hypolipidemic actions that are mediated in part by the modulation of numerous intracellular signaling and regulatory pathways.
The following are 6 great benefits of saffron.
1. May Help with Depression and Boosts Mood
Depression is one of the most prevalent psychiatric diseases worldwide, with about 3.8% of the population affected. Therefore, one of the most studied benefits of saffron is its antidepressant activity and mood-boosting abilities.
A large portion of those diagnosed with depression often is reluctant to take synthetic antidepressants in their correct doses. Hence, saffron is helpful for those with depression. The active components in saffron, mainly crocin and safranal, are the reason it has antidepressant abilities.
How does saffron have antidepressant effects?
In short, saffron modulates the levels of specific chemicals in the brain, similar to antidepressants. For example, serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects emotions and mood, among other things, is said to be increased by saffron, but its exact mechanism of action is unknown. It is proposed that saffron extract might inhibit the reuptake of serotonin in synapses. This means that serotonin is in the brain longer, thereby maintaining its positive effects. Depression is associated with an increased C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation. Inflammation is said to be associated with depression. Saffron has inflammatory properties, likely due to crocin and crocetin, so this could also strengthen its antidepressant capabilities.
2. Provides Antioxidants
Today’s lifestyle puts many people at risk of developing abnormally high levels of oxidative stress. This could be caused by psychological stress, trauma, alcohol, medication, automobiles, smoking, etc. Since oxidative stress is associated with common causes of death, like cancer and cardiovascular disease, saffron has greatly been praised for its antioxidant effects. Today you’ll find saffron being used mainly for its antioxidant properties; that’s why it can be found as an ingredient in many food supplements. The potent antioxidant activity of saffron can be credited to the presence of its unique carotenoids. Crocin and crocetin are the main carotenoids in saffron that give it its red color.
The most potent constituent against oxidative stress is the carotenoid crocin. Crocin has shown a high radical scavenging activity. It looks for free radicals and defends cells against oxidative stress.
However, when crocin, crocetin, and safranin are present, there is a synergistic effect that gives saffron enhanced antioxidant properties. These allow the protection of DNA and tRNA from harmful chemical reactions. In relation to the benefit mentioned previously, the antioxidant effect of saffron also helps fight depression. It protects against ameliorating oxidative stress, which is known to increase depression. In addition, since free radical damage has been associated with cancer, along with other chronic diseases, saffron also has anti-cancer properties.
3. May Help Prevent Neurodegenerative Diseases
Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, are the most common senile diseases in aging populations, especially those over 70 years. Symptoms common to these two diseases are a decline in cognition, progressive dementia, slow and involuntary movements, personality change, and psychological disorder development.
Saffron has been shown to have neuroprotective effects. Several studies have shown that this effect is due to crocin and crocetin. Such neuroprotective effects could be achieved by attenuating oxidant stress, endoplasmic reticulum stress, blood-brain barrier damage, neuroinflammation, and neuronal cell apoptosis. There are no effective drugs that cure Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Therefore, natural products, such as saffron, are being emphasized in therapeutics to address the pathogenesis of multifactorial disorders. Additionally, it has been shown that saffron has a synergistic effect with other nutraceuticals, such as B vitamins or folate, that affect cognitive function.
4. May Improve Cardiovascular Health
The manifestations of cardiovascular diseases, such as myocardial infarction, coronary artery disease, ischemic stroke, and so forth, are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Therefore, alongside lifestyle factors and pharmaceutical interventions, non-pharmaceutical measures, like herbal supplementation, are being studied as part of therapeutic strategies for cardiovascular diseases’ primary and secondary prevention.
Another benefit of saffron is its cardiovascular protective ability. Its major components, crocin, crocetin, and safranal, allow for these cardiovascular protective effects due to their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and hypolipidemic abilities.
Studies have shown that crocetin and crocin may ameliorate the effects of atherosclerosis and other similar diseases, like hyperlipidemia, hypertriglyceridemia, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, hyperinsulinemia, and insulin resistance. However, it is essential to mention that most studies used crocetin from sources other than saffron, so more studies are still needed to assess the cardiovascular protective effect of saffron.
5. May Reduce PMS Symptoms
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a common health issue that women of reproductive age face. It is described as emotional, physical, and psychological symptoms that occur before the start of a new menstrual cycle.Some studies have shown that saffron could help alleviate symptoms of PMS. For example, in one study, women between the ages of 20 to 45 years that took 30 mg of saffron daily for at least 6 months found that saffron was effective in mitigating symptoms of PMS.
In another study, 35 women were exposed to the odor of saffron for 20 minutes. It was found that the scent has physiological and psychological effects. There was a reduction in PMS symptoms like lowered levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and anxiety.
The majority of PMS symptoms are believed to be caused by the dysregulation of the serotonergic system. As mentioned earlier in the article, saffron has antidepressant effects through serotonergic mechanisms. Since there is an overlap between symptoms of depression and PMS, saffron could help elevate symptoms of PMS.
6. May Help with Weight Loss
Obesity and overweight are global health problems. They can lead to numerous severe health complications like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, dyslipidemia, cancers, and hypertension. A benefit of saffron could be its possible ability to help with weight loss. The mechanisms of action of its weight loss abilities are not yet clear. However, saffron can help stop obesity-mediated inflammation and other related metabolic diseases. When used as a weight-loss aid, saffron extract in the form of supplements may curb appetite and reduce cravings. Some proponents suggest that saffron increases brain levels of serotonin and, in turn, help prevent compulsive overeating and the associated weight gain.
Everything should be consumed in moderation. Too much saffron could be toxic to anyone. Make sure not to consume more than the normal amount, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, have bipolar disorder, or have saffron or similar plant-related allergy.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much saffron should I take for depression?
30 mg/day of saffron extract (stigma) with 2% safranal (Safranal is an organic compound isolated from saffron), for mild to moderate depression.
What’s the aroma of saffron?
The smell of saffron is unmistakable. It has a distinct aroma that is strong, bittersweet, earthy, grassy, and leathery. The chemical compounds picrocrocin and safranal are responsible for this scent. Saffron can be added to some perfumes to strengthen a leather chord.
Does saffron expire?
With the price you paid for your saffron, you probably want to preserve your stash forever. Good news! Saffron does not expire, and commercially packaged saffron threads don’t spoil, but they have a shelf life.
Like any other spice, saffron will lose its strong flavor and aroma as it ages. But, quality-wise, it will stay good till its “Best by” date. To maximize its shelf life, store your saffron in an airtight container and place it in a cool and dark place.
Saffron is a spice that comes from the flower of Crocus sativus. It has several uses, including culinary and medicinal applications. Saffron has a lot of great health benefits. These benefits include being a good source of antioxidants and possibly helping with depression and mood, neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular health, PMS symptoms, and weight loss.
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