Popularly known as ‘red gold’, saffron is one of the most valuable and costly spices in the world. This is because the aromatic bright red colour strands are hand-harvested from the flowers of the Crocus sativus plant. 

Regardless of the price, the sweet aroma of this spice makes an important part of several traditional dishes all around the globe ranging from risotto, payasam, paella and kheer. Saffron is also used for seasoning dishes such as biryani, cakes, and bread.

Being an aromatic plant, saffron is commonly used in perfumes and cosmetics. Saffron is known to have been used in China and India as a fabric dye and also as a sacred item, often being used for religious purposes

Saffron has been used in traditional, alternative systems of medicine for ages. It is rich in antioxidants and other plant-derived compounds, which benefit the immune system and promote good health. Saffron is also used as an antiseptic, digestive, antidepressant and anticonvulsant. Additionally, this spice is also rich in minerals such as potassium, calcium, iron and essential vitamins such as vitamin A, and vitamin C.

Did you know?

Saffron, as we know it, is actually the dried orange-red stigma of the Crocus Sativus flower. 

Saffron is harvested only once in a span of a few years. 1 kg of saffron consists of approximately 1,60,000 to 1,70,000 tiny flowers. The best saffron is recognized by its uniformly long threads and an all-red colour. Mixing saffron with water or any liquid gives the liquid a golden yellow colour, making it look rich and attractive.

Some basic facts about Saffron:

  • Botanical Name: Crocus sativus
  • Family: Iridaceae
  • Common Names: saffron, kesar, zafran
  • Sanskrit Name: केशरः (Kesara), कुङ्कुमति (Kunkumati)
  • Parts Used: The saffron spice sticks that we use come from the stigmas of the flower which are harvested by hand and then dried and stored for future usage.
  • Geographical distribution: Saffron is believed to have been cultivated first in Greece. Later it spread to Eurasia, Latin America, and North Africa. Iran is the largest producer of saffron, accounting for more than 94% of the world’s total saffron production. In India, saffron is cultivated in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, with Jammu & Kashmir being the largest producer of the plant in the country.
  • Interesting Fact: The first colour of the tricolour Indian flag is inspired by the colour of saffron.
  1. Saffron nutrition facts
  2. Saffron health benefits
  3. Saffron side effects
  4. Takeaway

Saffron hosts a variety of essential minerals and vitamins. It is rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and iron and contains a good amount of vitamin A, B1, B2, B9 and vitamin C. Saffron also has many plant-derived chemical components. Crocin, Crocetin and Safranal are the three main components of this spice that contribute to its colour, taste and aroma. 

As per the USDA Nutrient Database, 100 g of saffron provides the following nutrients:

Nutrients Value per 100 g
Water 11.9 g
Energy 310 kcal
Protein 11.43 g
Fat 5.85 g
Ash 5.45 g
Carbohydrate 65.37 g
Fibre 3.9 g
Minerals  
Calcium 111 mg
Iron 11.1 mg
Magnesium 264 mg
Phosphorus 252 mg
Potassium 1724 mg
Sodium 148 mg
Zinc 1.09 mg
Copper 0.328 mg
Manganese 28.408 mg
Selenium 5.6 µg
Vitamins  
Vitamin A 27 µg
Vitamin B1 0.115 mg
Vitamin B2 0.267 mg
Vitamin B3 1.46 mg
Vitamin B6 1.01 mg
Vitamin B9 93 µg
Vitamin C 80.8 mg
Fatty acids  
Saturated 1.586 g
Monounsaturated 0.429 g
Others  
Kaempferol 205.5 mg

Saffron has a number of benefits for health and well being. It is said to be helpful in improving mood, enhance muscle strength and eliminating toxins from the body. Let us have a look at some of the science-backed health benefits of saffron.

  • For immunity: Due to the presence of carotenoids, saffron has been evidenced to have a positive effect on individual immunity.
  • For athletes: Saffron helps to improve athletic performance and enhances muscle mass and strength.
  • For cholesterol: The use of saffron has been evidenced to reduce total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and triglycerides’ levels.
  • For the brain: saffron has several compounds which make it a potential anti-depressant. It also helps to improve brain health and neuronal function aiding in the prevention of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
  • For stomach ulcers: Saffron aids in providing relief from stomach ulcers due to its antioxidant properties.
  • For the eyes: Saffron has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it great for the eyes. It helps in improving vision and helps in the protection of the eyes and prevention of age-related macular degeneration.
  • As anti-toxins: Saffron has several compounds which function as anti-toxins as they aid in the elimination of toxins from the body. It even has a potential against snake venom, pesticides and industrial toxins, thus working as an antidote.

Saffron benefits for immunity

The immune system comprises several cells and natural compounds, which protect our body from the invasion of harmful microorganisms and infections. So, a healthy immune system is essential to maintain optimal body functions. Research shows that saffron has a positive effect on immunity due to the presence of carotenoids in it. Carotenoids are suggested to be helpful in stimulating white blood cells and improve the ability of immune cells to kill pathogens.

Other compounds present in saffron including safranal, crocin, and crocetin are also shown to have potent immunomodulatory properties. 

A clinical study done on men who consumed 100 mg of saffron every day, for a period of 6 weeks, showed an increase in the number of white blood cells  (WBCs), which are responsible for eliminating pathogens from the body.

(Read more: Immunity boosting foods)

Saffron for athletic performance

Research indicates that saffron can help enhance performance in athletes.

A study done on mice indicated an overall improvement in endurance, increased number of mitochondria (pointing to more energy generation), better metabolic markers and reduced oxidative stress.

In a clinical study, 28 non-active but otherwise healthy male students from a university who consumed saffron every day reported a significant increase in physical force and reaction times.

(Read more: The right age and time to go to gym)

Saffron also helped improve muscle strength in these athletes. Additionally, saffron was found to increase the flow of oxygen through the body, which in turn enhanced performance.

In another study, pre-supplementation with saffron before intensive exercise was found to reduce inflammatory markers in a group of women. The study suggested that saffron may be used as a supplement by athletes before intensive resistance exercise.

(Read more: How to begin your fitness journey)

Saffron for cholesterol

Cholesterol is needed for the production of new living cells but too much cholesterol in the body could increase the risk of heart diseases and stroke.

According to research, the antioxidants and polyphenols present in saffron can help reduce the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the body.

(Read more: High cholesterol treatment)

A preclinical study, done for a period of six weeks, showed that the crocetin and crocin present in saffron can reduce the level of triglycerides and total cholesterol level (TC). Crocin also helped reduce the level of LDL cholesterol in the body by inhibiting the absorption of fat and cholesterol.

Animal studies also show that saffron may be able to reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 50%. Reduced cholesterol further reduces the risk of atherosclerosis, a condition characterised by the formation of plaques and narrowing of blood vessels.

(Read more: Foods to reduce and control high cholesterol)

Saffron for depression

Depression is a mental disorder that is characterized by a feeling of sadness, loneliness and a lack of interest in simple day-day activities. Sometimes, these thoughts can even lead to suicidal tendencies.

Several preclinical studies reveal that saffron extract contains compounds such as crocin and safranal that can act as effective antidepressants. An extract made from the petal of the saffron flowers is suggested to be helpful in the management of mild to moderate depression.

Clinical studies also indicate that saffron has the potential to act as an antidepressant. The mood-enhancing properties of saffron have been compared to popular antidepressants such as fluoxetine and imipramine.

(Read more: 7 Foods to improve your mood)

Saffron prevents cancer

Cancer is characterized by an abnormal growth of the body cells. In an extensive research on chemoprevention, scientists are now searching for natural sources such as plants, vegetables, and fruits with anti-cancer properties. Research indicates that saffron has a preventive action against various types of cancer such as stomach cancer, liver cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer and breast cancer. The anticancer properties of saffron are attributed to the presence of carotenoids such as crocin and crocetin. These carotenoids can inhibit the abnormal growth of cells and regulate normal cell growth.

According to a study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, saffron kills cancer cells without hurting normal body cells. It is also suggested to be helpful in the prevention of tumour formation and reducing the harmful effects of anticancer drugs.

(Read more: Difference between cancer and tumour)

Saffron as an anti-toxin

Toxins are substances that are either produced and collected naturally in the body or are procured from the outside. External toxins might result from different pesticides and insecticides. Processed foods, pollution, and chemical ingredients in the soaps and shampoos may also contribute to elevated toxin levels in the body. Research indicates that the ingredients present in saffron can help remove these toxins from the body.

Several preclinical studies have reported that crocin, crocetin and safranal can act against toxins. This is primarily attributed to the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antiapoptotic properties (that can prevent cell death) of saffron plant. Safranal in saffron is suggested to be the most effective antidote against several pesticides, chemical and industrial toxins.

(Read more: Detox diet)

Saffron for macular degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a serious eye disease that usually occurs in people after 50 years. This disease causes progressive vision loss by affecting the macula, a small portion near the centre of the retina. Saffron is rich in crocin and crocetin, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds help in protecting the eyes from AMD.

(Read more: How to improve eyesight)

A clinical study done on patients with AMD showed that consuming tablets with saffron as one of the main ingredients showed a significant improvement in vision. 

A double-blind placebo-controlled trial done on a group of AMD patients found improvement in symptoms by regular use of about 30mg/day of saffron for six months.

Another study indicated gradual improvement in macular functions in AMD patients with long term use of saffron.

(Read more: Macular degeneration treatment)

Saffron for brain health

Neurodegeneration refers to a condition wherein the neurons (brain cells) start to lose their function slowly. This condition can lead to many diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Parkinson's disease and memory loss. Studies indicate that saffron can be used to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.

A clinical study done on 54 patients who suffered from mild to moderate AD showed improvement after consuming a small amount of saffron every day for a period of 22 weeks.

A preclinical study done to access the effect of crocin in saffron showed that crocin has the potential to treat AD and can help prevent cognitive disorders.

However, more studies are needed to better understand the benefits and effects of saffron in neurodegenerative conditions.

(Read more: How to increase brain power)

Saffron for stomach ulcers

Gastric ulcer is a sore that occurs in the lining of the stomach. It is often associated with a burning sensation the stomach, heartburn and nausea. Animal-based studies suggest that safranal and crocin, components of saffron, have antioxidant properties and are effective against the formation of gastric ulcers. A higher dose of crocin even completely prevented the occurrence of gastric ulcer in a study. These results indicate that regular consumption of saffron could be helpful in the prevention and mitigation of the symptoms of gastric ulcers.

(Read more: Foods to eat and avoid in gastric ulcers) 

The following are some of the side effects of saffron:

  • It is widely believed that daily consumption of saffron is good for your health. However, people who are allergic to saffron might have side effects such as nasal congestiondifficulty in breathing, nausea, and anxiety. Although these side effects are rarely seen, it is better to be cautious.
  • Though consumption of saffron was found to be beneficial in the last cycle of pregnancy, another study showed that women during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy have more chances of a miscarriage if they consumed saffron in large quantities. Uterine contraction and bleeding caused by saffron are considered to be the main factors for this effect.

Saffron has been in use for its health benefits and medicinal properties for ages. Extensive research has been done to study the health benefits of this spice and it has been shown to be highly effective against several disorders such as cancer, gastric ulcer, neurodegeneration and depression. Most of the health benefits of saffron are attributed to the presence of useful compounds such as crocin, crocetin and safranal in it. Saffron does not have too many side effects but some people could be allergic to it


Medicines / Products that contain Saffron

References

  1. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Basic Report: 02037, Spices, saffron. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Legacy Release [Internet]
  2. Kianbakht S, Ghazavi A. Immunomodulatory effects of saffron: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2011 Dec;25(12):1801-5. PMID: 21480412
  3. Meamarbashi A1, Rajabi A. Potential Ergogenic Effects of Saffron. J Diet Suppl. 2016;13(5):522-9. PMID: 26811090
  4. Maryam Mashmoul et al. Saffron: A Natural Potent Antioxidant as a Promising Anti-Obesity Drug. Antioxidants (Basel). 2013 Dec; 2(4): 293–308. PMID: 26784466
  5. Izharul Hasanet al. / Journal of Pharmacy Research 2011,4(7),2156-2158. The incredible health benefits of saffron: A Review.
  6. Prasan R. Bhandari. Crocus sativus L. (saffron) for cancer chemoprevention: A mini review. J Tradit Complement Med. 2015 Apr; 5(2): 81–87. PMID: 26151016
  7. Bibi Marjan Razavi, Hossein Hosseinzadeh. Saffron as an antidote or a protective agent against natural or chemical toxicities. Daru. 2015; 23(1): 31. PMID: 25928729
  8. Hasan Badie Bostan, Soghra Mehri, Hossein Hosseinzadeh. Toxicology effects of saffron and its constituents: a review. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2017 Feb; 20(2): 110–121. PMID: 28293386
  9. Zeinali Majid, et al. Immunoregulatory and anti-inflammatory properties of Crocus sativus (Saffron) and its main active constituents: A review. Iran J Basic Med Sci. 2019 Apr; 22(4): 334–344. PMID: 31223464.
  10. Akbari-Fakhrabadi Maryam, et al. Effect of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and endurance training on mitochondrial biogenesis, endurance capacity, inflammation, antioxidant, and metabolic biomarkers in Wistar rats. Journal of Food Biochemistry. 2019 Aug; 43(8): e12946.
  11. Hosseinzadeh Mandana, et al. Pre-supplementation of Crocus sativus Linn (saffron) attenuates inflammatory and lipid peroxidation markers induced by intensive exercise in sedentary women. Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Science. May 2017; 7(5): 147-151.
  12. Kamalipour Maryam, Akhondzadeh Shahin. Cardiovascular Effects of Saffron: An Evidence-Based Review. J Tehran Heart Cent. 2011 Spring; 6(2): 59–61. PMID: 23074606.
  13. Shakeri Masihollah, et al. Toxicity of Saffron Extracts on Cancer and Normal Cells: A Review Article. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2020 Jul; 21(7): 1867–1875. PMID: 32711409.
  14. LASHAY Alireza, et al. Short-term Outcomes of Saffron Supplementation in Patients with Age-related Macular Degeneration: A Double-blind, Placebo-controlled, Randomized Trial. Med Hypothesis Discov Innov Ophthalmol. 2016 Spring; 5(1): 32–38. PMID: 28289690.
  15. Piccardi M., et al. A Longitudinal Follow-Up Study of Saffron Supplementation in Early Age-Related Macular Degeneration: Sustained Benefits to Central Retinal Function. Evi Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012; 2012: 429124. PMID: 22852021.
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