Known as the 'golden spice,' did you know that saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world?
Used for centuries, saffron has even been mentioned in the Bible and is currently ranked as one of the top herbs and spices in the world.
Besides its rich golden color and incredibly unique flavor, saffron boasts an impressive list of medicinal properties and is known to promote mental and heart health, improve eyesight, boost immunity, alleviate PMS, support weight loss, and more!
In this post, we'll discover what saffron is, where it comes from, the nutritional properties of saffron, and uncover 12 incredible saffron health benefits - including why use saffron supplements for eye health!
Table of Contents
- What is Saffron?
- Why Is Saffron So Expensive?
- Where Does Saffron Come From?
- Medicinal Properties of Saffron in History
- Uses of Saffron
- Saffron Nutritional Composition and Benefits
- Saffron Health Benefits
- Saffron for Eye Health
- Saffron for Heart Health
- Saffron for Brain Health and Mental Wellbeing
- Saffron for Erectile Dysfunction and Sexual Function
- Saffron for PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome)
- Saffron for Weight Loss
- Saffron for Metabolism
- Saffron for Immunity
- Saffron for Cancer
- Saffron Side Effects
- Saffron Dosage
- How to Buy Saffron Supplements
- Key Takeaways
What is Saffron?
Also, known as "kesar" or "za’faran," saffron is derived from Crocus sativus or "saffron crocus" plant, which is actually a purple flower that belongs to the same family as irises. Saffron is the delicate, thread-like stigma of the plant that boasts a rich crimson color, and is picked by hand individually and dried. This results in the culinary spice that we all know and love.
But saffron's uses go far beyond cooking. Saffron is used in cosmetics, dyes, and even in the production of pharmaceutical drugs.
Why Is Saffron So Expensive?
It takes a whopping 170,000 flowers to yield just 1 kg of dry saffron!
A complicated spice to harvest, saffron needs the right growing conditions, and physical manual labor to harvest. The blooming period is also just one week in the entire year, and each flower produces only three threads or stigmas of this golden spice.
One pound of saffron can cost up to $5000. In comparison, the next most expensive spice is vanilla, which comes in at around $600 a pound - still nowhere close to saffron!
Where Does Saffron Come From?
Saffron cultivation has spanned across many countries, cultures, and civilizations dating back to over 3,000 years.
It is believed that saffron was first cultivated in Bronze-age Greece, but today close to 90% of the world's saffron supply comes from Iran.
The short video below provides insight into how saffron is grown and cultivated in Iran and is worth a quick watch:
Saffron is also grown in other areas of the world such as India, Morocco, Afghanistan, Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, New Zealand, and some parts of China.
Medicinal Properties of Saffron in History
There's a reason why saffron has been used for so many millennia, and it's not just for its ability to spice and color food.
This precious herb was first documented to have been used in 7th C BC, and since then "documentation of saffron's use over a span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some ninety illnesses has been uncovered."
In the late 4th C BC, Cleopatra was known to bathe in saffron due to its cosmetic and aphrodisiac properties, and healers in Egypt used the spice to treat various gastrointestinal ailments.
Alexander the Great used saffron in his tea and for healing his many wounds, and "his faith in saffron grew with each treatment."
In the 14C, demand for saffron skyrocketed as it was "coveted by plague victims for its medicinal properties."
Other uses of saffron in history include its use in the treatment of respiratory ailments, colds, bronchitis, fever, and insomnia.
In Ayurvedic medicine, saffron is known as an anti-inflammatory that aids blood circulation and regulates the menstrual cycle. It also regulates mood and can increase libido.
During various periods in history, this precious spice has been worth much more than its weight in gold. Even today, it continues to be the most expensive spice in the world.
Next, let's take a look at the benefits of saffron in our world today and the nutritional properties of this treasured spice.
Uses of Saffron
Saffron is used in a variety of different ways including being used as a culinary spice, a dye, in medicinal formulations, and more.
Saffron is used to add its unique color and pleasing aroma to food dishes all over the world. Iranian pulaos to Spanish paellas would not be the same without this key spice! Saffron is also widely used to infuse tea with its natural color, flavor, and aroma.
Saffron has been used as a dye for centuries (crocin, which gives saffron its unique color is water-soluble). It has been used since ancient times to dye silks, fabrics, and rugs, and also for painting.
Saffron is amongst one of the most ancient ingredients in perfume. It lent its unique earthy and bittersweet fragrance to scent houses, temples, baths, and even public places in ancient Rome, Egypt, and Greece.
Many popular perfume brands today also contain notes of saffron in their perfume blends.
Saffron formulations that have exhibited positive benefits include:
- Anti-itch cream
- Scar removal skin cream
- Saffron supplements
- Tea Infusions
Saffron is also used therapeutically for a variety of health conditions including being used "as a remedy for catarrhal infections, for melancholia, to treat liver enlargement, as a nerve sedative, as a carminative, diaphoretic, and emmenagogue."
Saffron extract also has "antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor effects, radical-scavenging, learning and memory improving properties." It also possesses "chemoprotective properties."
Saffron Nutritional Composition and Benefits
Composed of a variety of different chemical compounds, each helps to give saffron its unique color, taste, and incredible health benefits.
There are well over 150 compounds present in saffron. The ones that are most important in terms of their benefits, color, and flavor are crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal.
Saffron extract is rich in the following nutritional compounds:
Carotenoids are potent antioxidants that give a unique red color to plants and animals (berries, salmon, lobster) all get the reddish tinge from carotenoids present in them.
In saffron, crocin and crocetin, are two potent carotenoids, that serve as natural dyes giving saffron it's yellowish-red hue.
Research shows that "carotenoids are also the most characteristic and important components of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) stigmas," and that saffron carotenoids include fat-soluble components such as lycopene, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, all highly beneficial for promoting vision health.
Saffron flowers contain the powerful flavonoid, Kaempferol, which is known to have both antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
Research has also shown that the phenolic and flavonoid compounds of the saffron stigma possess antioxidant activity, and concluded that "saffron stigma could be applied as a natural antioxidant source for industrial purposes."
Saffron extract or the oil extracted from the saffron stigmas contains therapeutic properties. Two components, safranal, and picrocrocin which are also known as the "bitter components" of saffron are responsible for the unique taste and aroma we have come to recognize of saffron today.
Vitamins and Minerals
Amongst other nutrients, saffron contains key vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin C, Vitamin B1 (thiamin), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B9, and minerals such as calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, copper, potassium, phosphorous, and zinc.
Saffron Health Benefits
Saffron boasts a variety of health benefits and properties, and is a natural:
- Appetite Suppressant
Next, let's look at the different saffron health benefits, including why you should use saffron supplements for eye health.
Saffron for Eye Health
Why use saffron supplements for eye health?
Saffron has shown to have many beneficial properties that include its ability to improve vision health. It is especially helpful in preventing or slowing down degenerative eye diseases such as wet and dry age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Saffron for Macular Degeneration
Saffron contains key vitamins and minerals along with key carotenoids such as zeaxanthin, which have shown to help prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that affects your visual acuity as you age, causing blurred vision, failure to see in dim light and even partial or complete vision loss.
A recent study published in 2019, showed that supplementing with 20mg of saffron every day for 3 months moderately "improved visual function in participants with AMD, including those using AREDS supplements."
Research led by Professor Silvia Bisti and other scientists at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science and University of L’Aquila, in Italy, suggests the saffron could possibly "reverse the course of blinding diseases and may hold one of the keys to preventing the loss of sight in old age."
Their research showed that saffron was able to control the genes which regulate the eye's cells responsible for vision and actually protect the photoreceptors of the eye from damage, making the "cells tougher and more resilient."
This could potentially "slow and possibly even reverse the course of blinding diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa."
Animal studies have shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of saffron may protect the eyes' photoreceptors from retinal stress. It also demonstrated that "in patients with early AMD, dietary supplementation with saffron was able to improve significantly the retinal flicker sensitivity suggesting neuroprotective effect of the compound."
In another study, 60 participants with both wet and dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) received saffron supplements at 30 mg per day or a placebo for 6 months. After six months, the study showed that patients who supplemented with saffron daily displayed "significant improvement in retinal function in AMD," for both wet and dry AMD.
In more research, saffron extract significantly increased blood flow in the retina, and helped to "facilitate retinal function recovery." This was attributed to the key compound crocin, which helps to dilate the vessels which carry blood to the eyes.
Saffron for Cataracts
Cataract or clouding of the lens of the eye is a degenerative eye condition and a leading cause of blindness worldwide. It is estimated that by 2020, 40 million people globally "will have severely reduced vision due to cataract."
Saffron extract has shown to have "anticataractogenic potential" due to its potent antioxidant properties and can help to prevent selenite-induced or oxidative stress-induced cataract formation in Wistar rats.
From the research done so far, it's evident that taking advantage of saffron supplements for eye health can prevent degenerative eye conditions and promote vision health. And, if you have AMD, taking saffron for macular degeneration is highly recommended, to not only slow down the condition but also to improve eye health overall.
Saffron for Heart Health
Saffron has shown to have heart-protecting effects in a variety of research studies.
Metabolic syndrome is considered to be a key risk factor for heart disease, with heat shock proteins (HSPs) being released when the body is under stress. In one study 105 participants diagnosed with metabolic syndrome were administered 100 mg of saffron or a placebo. In 3 months, the saffron group showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein levels.
Saffron has also shown to help the heart by increasing the capacity of blood pumped, and the presence of kaempferol in saffron has demonstrated "benefits for the treatment of atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, hyperlipidemia, and diabetes through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties."
Lipoprotein oxidation susceptibility (LOS) is linked to heart disease, and 50mg of saffron dissolved in 100ml milk taken twice by 20 participants showed a significant drop in LOS levels. The study indicated "the potential of Saffron as an antioxidant."
In an animal study, the compound crocin in crocus sativus L or saffron, was shown to significantly reduce cholesterol levels and reduce atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the blood vessels.
Saffron extract also demonstrated a "cardioprotective effect" on wistar rats that suffered from myocardial infarction (heart attacks).
These studies show saffron's ability to improve heart function and benefit heart health.
Saffron for Brain Health and Mental Wellbeing
The active compounds in saffron have shown promise in keeping the brain sharp, boosting memory and mood, and improving cognitive function. This makes it an amazing supplement for slowing down the progression of degenerative brain conditions and supporting brain health and overall mental wellness.
Saffron for Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Saffron extract can greatly help those suffering from Alzheimer's disease (AD)and dementia.
In one study, saffron extract supplements (30 mg/day) taken for 16 weeks in 46 patients with mild to moderate AD demonstrated improved cognitive functioning over a placebo, and even reduced symptoms of dementia.
In another study, 54 patients were randomly administered saffron supplements at 30 mg/day or donepezil (a drug used to treat Alzheimer's disease and dementia) at 10 mg/day for twenty-two weeks. The study concluded that saffron was as effective as donepezil for treating symptoms and actually had no side effects compared to the pharmaceutical drug.
Crocin, one of the most prominent chemical constituents of saffron, has also shown to enhance learning and memory.
Although more research is needed, saffron has shown promising scope in managing the cognitive symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Saffron for Depression
Saffron has been used traditionally as a natural treatment for depression in Persian medicine.
Several clinical trials have shown that saffron can help combat symptoms of both major depression and postpartum depression, and support mental health by increasing levels of the feel-good hormone, dopamine.
In one study, 40 male and female patients diagnosed with major depression were divided into an experimental group treated with 30mg/day of saffron and 20/mg per day of fluoxetine (an anti-depressant), or a control group that received 20/mg per day of fluoxetine and a placebo, for a month.
The study concluded that the experimental group that was administered saffron improved depression symptoms, while no such significant change was reported in the control group.
Results of 5 separate randomized controlled trials revealed that "saffron supplementation significantly reduced depression symptoms," compared to a placebo for patients with major depressive disorder (MDD), and that saffron can "improve symptoms of depression in adults with MDD," and in fact exhibited an effect comparable to that of standard anti-depressants.
Another key study demonstrated that in 40 women with postpartum depression, 6 weeks of saffron supplementation was actually more effective than the widely used antidepressant Prozac.
Although larger-scale studies are warranted, saffron supplementation has definitely shown promise in naturally reducing symptoms in depression sufferers, without the side effects.
Saffron for Anxiety
Depression and anxiety often go hand in hand. Apart from being effective in improving the symptoms of depression that we saw above, saffron can also help to curb anxiety.
Several research studies have demonstrated the anti-anxiety properties of saffron. The dried stigmas of saffron "possess antidepressant properties similar to those of current antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine, imipramine and citalopram, but with fewer reported side effects." The study concluded that saffron is effective for the "treatment of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders."
In an animal study, saffron extract reduced anxiolytic (anxiety-like) behavior in mice and also increased sleep time.
Saffron for Erectile Dysfunction and Sexual Function
In ancient times, saffron was used as an aphrodisiac, and we now know that its key compound crocin can be attributed to promoting sexual function.
Even today, saffron is known for its ability to improve sexual function in both men and women, and there's research to back that claim.
In one study, 36 men with anti-depressant medication-induced erectile dysfunction were given 30mg of saffron daily for a month. The study concluded that the men given saffron showed "significantly greater improvement in erectile function," than those given a placebo.
Similar to the previous study, 38 women were also administered 30mg/day of saffron daily for a month for fluoxetine (anti-depressant) induced sexual dysfunction. The study concluded stating that, "saffron may safely and effectively improve some of the fluoxetine-induced sexual problems including arousal, lubrication, and pain," in women.
Although more trials are needed, if you suffer from sexual dysfunction you should give saffron supplements a try, instead of turning to synthetic drugs that can lead to side effects such as headaches, blurred vision, body pain, and more.
Saffron for PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome)
PMS affects a large percentage of the female population and is one of the most common health issues reported in women of child-bearing age.
Saffron has been used traditionally to alleviate the symptoms of PMS, which include dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramping), mood swings, acne, and bloating.
Studies done today have also shown "saffron as an alternative treatment for PMS."
In one study, women between the ages of 20-45 years experiencing PMS symptoms for 6 months on a regular menstrual cycle, were administered saffron supplements at 30 mg/day or a placebo. The saffron group showed a significant improvement in PMS symptoms as compared to the placebo group.
In another study, inhalation of the odor of saffron (crocus sativus), was explored in 35 women with PMS. The study concluded that saffron odor is effective "in the treatment of PMS, dysmenorrhea and irregular menstruation," and it was discovered that inhaling the odor for 20 minutes significantly decreased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Saffron for Weight Loss
There have been several studies to show that saffron has the ability to suppress appetite, boost metabolism, and promote weight loss.
Research has shown that saffron supplementation can reduce the risk of an "over snacking-diet associated with obesity," and help to promote "weight loss in overweight individuals."
The study revealed that the active compounds in saffron are effective at:
- Suppressing appetite and therefore reducing the intake of calories
- Increasing the feeling of fullness (satiety)
- Slowing down the absorption of fat
- Promoting the burning of fat and glucose for energy
One study showed that high-dose supplementation of saffron in 60 mildly overweight women for 6 months, reduced snacking, and created a "satiating effect that could contribute to body weight loss."
A variety of research studies [1,2,3,4] have also "proposed that obesity might be an inflammatory disorder." And, since oxidative stress increases inflammation, antioxidants such as saffron may directly or indirectly control the progression of obesity by "working as an anti-inflammatory compound alone or fat reducing agent in parallel."
Although more clinical trials are needed, saffron extract has shown to combat obesity by acting as an appetite suppressant and promoting weight loss.
Saffron for Metabolism
A major reason why many people look to saffron extract for weight loss is the ability of the spice to boost metabolism.
Saffron enhances thermogenesis in the body, which means it increases internal body heat encouraging the burning of fat cells. By doing this, it helps to boost metabolic function.
Research has shown that saffron not only slows down the absorption of fat but simultaneously promotes the burning of fat and glucose for energy, which not only increases metabolism but also supports weight loss.
Furthermore, saffron has shown to have positive effects on those suffering from metabolic syndrome (a number of conditions that occur together, which can increase your risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes).
Saffron for Immunity
Saffron has shown to improve the immune system's ability to combat infections.
Another study highlighted saffron's anti-viral properties. It suggested that saffron inhibits viruses from multiplying and entering cells and that the active compounds crocin and picrocrocin in saffron, could be promising treatments for "herbal therapy against viral infections."
Saffron for Cancer
Saffron extract has demonstrated anti-cancer effects, making it a promising potential natural cancer treatment.
In a review for cancer prevention, saffron was shown to exhibit "numerous beneficial properties including radical scavenging, anti-mutagenic and immuno-modulating effects."
The active compounds in saffron such as crocin, crocetin and safranal "demonstrated antitumor and cancer preventive activities," in cellular (in vitro) and animal studies (in vivo) of colorectal, lung, pancreatic, liver, skin, cervical, ovarian, blood, breast, liver cancer and more.
Saffron's anti-cancer properties are attributed to crocin which is transformed to crocetin in the body. Crocetin has demonstrated the ability to inhibit the production of cancerous proteins and increase apoptosis (selectively target and kill cancer cells).
There's no doubt that more research and studies need to be done, but saffron has shown to have significant anti-cancer effects and is a promising candidate for clinical anticancer trials.
Saffron Side Effects
Although saffron is considered to be safe to consume, you should always consult with your health care practitioner before starting a new supplement, especially if you are currently taking other medications or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Some side effects of saffron may include headache, nausea, dry mouth, and change in appetite. Due to saffron's ability to lower blood pressure, it may interact with blood pressure reducing drugs, and this may require an adjustment in current medication dosage, that should be discussed with a health care provider.
Saffron can be taken up to 1.5g (1500mg) per day, however, the ideal dose can be much lower ranging from 30-100mg daily. Doses above 5 grams are toxic and can be fatal.
How to Buy Saffron Supplements
When buying dried saffron threads or saffron supplements you need to make sure you are not getting any adulterated versions of this spice.
Due to its high price point, dried saffron can often be substituted with different flowers such as marigold, or dyes such as beet, turmeric, or even dyed silk fibers can often pass off as the real deal.
When it comes to saffron supplements, you may find that some contain stearates and junk oils as fillers, which you definitely do not want.
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- Saffron is a treasured and highly valued spice known for its taste, aroma, color, and medicinal and healing properties
- Taking saffron supplements for eye health can slow down the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and cataract
- Modern research has also shown that saffron can decrease inflammation, provide neuroprotective benefits, promote weight loss, support heart health, alleviate PMS, and more
- Make sure to always buy natural saffron extract from a trusted manufacturer, as many products in the market are adulterated and may not even contain real saffron.