Saffron – As Mysterious as the Orient

Saffron is one of the oldest spices in history and is still commonly used today in Middle Eastern foods. The earliest depiction of figures plucking saffron dates from 1600 to 1700 BC, on a fresco of Minos Palace in Crete. The labor-intensive harvesting of this spice today is still very similar to ancient harvesting methods, which would explain why saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world! Also called “red gold”, just one pound of saffron can cost anywhere between $500 and $5,000. But many feel this spice is worth the high cost because it has been revered for centuries for its potent medicinal properties.  

Derived from the purple flower of Crocus sativus, saffron gives dishes a delicious taste and a rich golden color. The crimson stigma and styles, which are called threads, are dried and used to season a variety of foods. But did you know, this spice also has a wide host of health benefits? It’s hard to believe these benefits include science-backed cardiovascular support, stomach support, and sleep and memory support, to name just a few.  

Inside the beautiful saffron threads, an array of plant compounds are at work that act as antioxidants, including crocin, crocetin, safranal, and kaempferol. Responsible for saffron’s bright crimson color, crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments that research has shown are able to protect brain cells against damage, fight against inflammation, and aid weight loss by reducing appetite. Another plant compound, safranal, is responsible for the taste and aroma of saffron, and may help improve mood, memory, and learning ability in addition to protecting against oxidative stress.  

Sometimes referred to as the “sunshine spice,” saffron is also known to brighten the mood. Taking this spice has been found in some studies to alleviate poor moods naturally. Saffron as a natural, botanical source that is a mood booster is still being researched for its medical use. Early research is promising.  

An aphrodisiac is a food or botanical agent that may help improve libido. Saffron is commonly thought of as a powerful aphrodisiac. One analysis of six studies showed that participants who consumed saffron experienced an improvement in libido and overall sexual satisfaction.1 The effects were similar in men and women and were especially noted in those who were taking antidepressants, which can decrease sexual desire and make intimacy difficult or even painful.  

As if that isn’t impressive enough, saffron is also used to reduce appetite and aid weight loss. One of the many habits that can put you at risk of gaining weight is snacking. Interestingly, consuming saffron has been shown to prevent snacking by curbing your appetite. In two studies,2,3 those taking saffron supplements felt fuller, snacked less frequently, and lost more weight than those who did not take the saffron supplements.  

In addition to these powerful benefits, saffron helps reduce risk factors for heart disease, and can help lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent blood vessels and arteries from clogging. The spice may also lower blood sugar levels and raise insulin sensitivity, improve eyesight, and may improve memory in adults with Alzheimer’s disease. This impressive and ancient spice is still being studied to determine the full effect of these benefits, but research is promising.  

Saffron is easy to add to your diet, with a subtle taste that pairs perfectly with savory dishes such as risotto and other rice dishes. Saffron is also available as a dietary supplement, but be certain to choose a supplement from a reliable, trustworthy company. Your health is worth it!