What Is Saffron?
A spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus (which also is its scientific name), saffron (and its threads, especially) is mainly used as a seasoning and coloring agent in food. Apart from its uses, it is also well known for being one of the most expensive spices in the world.
Saffron (Kesar in Hindi, Jafran in Bengali, Kumkumappu in Tamil, Kumkuma pubba in Telugu and Zaeafran in Arabic) is thought to have originated in or near Persia, from where it propagated to Eurasia, and then to parts of North America, North Africa, and Oceania. The plant usually thrives in the Mediterranean maquis (a place in the Mediterranean regions with dense evergreen shrubs), and in similar climates where hot and cold summer breezes blow over semi-arid lands. The flower of the plant is purple and possesses a honey-like fragrance. The stems grow up to 20 to 30 cm in height, and they, along with the flowers and roots, develop between October and February.
Saffron comes in various varieties; some of the popular ones include –
– Padmagadhi, grown in Kashmir and often considered the best variety (also called Mongra or Lacha saffron).
– Parasika kumkuma, which has bigger strands.
– Madhugandhi, which has thick strands that are rough to tough (and are slightly white).
– Bahilka, which has tiny white strands.
Other popular varieties are sargol (native to Iran), acquilla (native to Italy), and crème (native to Spain).
That’s the brief. But this popular spice has an interesting history too.
What Is The Nutritional Profile Of Saffron?
Saffron, in about 100 grams of its quantity contains 310 kilocalories, 65.37 grams of carbohydrates, 11.43 grams of protein, 5.85 grams of fat and 0mg of cholesterol. Dietary fibre content is 3.9 grams with other minerals like calcium 111mg, copper, 0.328mg, iron 11.10mg, magnesium 264mg and manganese 28mg contributing to its mineral base.
|Principle||Nutrient Value||Percentage of RDA|
|Total Fat||5.85 g||29%|
|Dietary Fiber||3.9 g||10%|
|Vitamin A||530 IU||18%|
|Vitamin C||80.8 mg||135%|
What Are The Health Benefits Of Saffron?
The amazing healing and medicinal properties of saffron offer various benefits, some of the most important ones include prevention of serious ailments like cancer, improving respiratory and digestive health, and eliminating pain. It also acts as an aphrodisiac. The best saffron benefits are discussed hereunder:
1. Fights Cancer
Studies have shown that cancerous rats treated with saffron aqueous extract showed improvement in their condition. And crocin, the compound in saffron, had inhibited the growth of colorectal cancer cells (while it left the healthy cells unaffected). It also had shown similar effects in the case of hepatic and prostate cancers.
Saffron is rich in carotenoids, which can contribute to its anticancer properties. Crocin in saffron can prevent breast cancer and leukemia . However, further research is warranted.
As per a report by the American Council of Science and Health, crocetin (a carotenoid related to crocin) in saffron can block the proliferation of two types of human cancer . It achieves this by inhibiting an enzyme that is particularly active in cancer cells. Though this may not brand saffron as a superb anticancer food, the spice does hold great promise.
According to another study, crocetinic acid (a purified compound from crocetin) has the potential to inhibit pancreatic cancer. In fact, the compound obstructs cancer stem cells – destroying them, which prevents the cancer from returning .
2. Aids Arthritis Treatment
An Italian study states that crocetin in saffron can enhance cerebral oxygenation, consequently facilitating arthritis treatment. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, one variety of saffron (meadow saffron) can be effective in relieving gout . However, it must not be used by elderly patients with liver, kidney or bone marrow disorders – and neither by pregnant women.
3. Improves Vision
A Spanish study states that the natural compounds in saffron can help prevent vision loss and retinal degeneration. Safranal, one of the compounds in the spice, was found to preserve photoreceptor morphology (the mechanism in the eyes that helps study the forms of things you see), visual response, and capillary network .
Saffron supplementation to ongoing treatment was found to improve macular thickness in patients. This significantly improves retinal function. Saffron was also found to prevent photoreceptor damage induced by chronic oxidative injury .
And as per a report by The University of Sydney, saffron was found to improve vision in the elderly. In the test, the patient’s vision had improved after taking saffron pills. Saffron affects the genes that regulate the fatty acid content of the cell membrane – and this makes vision cells more resilient. The study indicates saffron’s potential in treating retinitisc pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes permanent blindness in young people .
4. Cures Insomnia
Though research is limited, certain studies say that saffron can cure insomnia . Other studies show that saffron can help in treating depression, and insomnia related to the condition.
In yet another study, crocin in saffron was found to improve non-rapid eye movement sleep in laboratory mice. More importantly, the compound didn’t show any adverse effects (like rebound insomnia) after sleep was induced in the mice.
5. Boosts Brain Health
Numerous studies show saffron to be effective in treating learning and memory impairments. In one such study, administering 30 mg of saffron a day showed improvement in the condition of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Also, crocin and ethanolic extracts of saffron displayed antidepressant effects in rodents. Saffron supplementation had also largely improved the mood of the subjects in another study. Saffron aqueous extract was well tolerated even by schizophrenic patients, with no serious side effects.
Treatment with saffron extract had also lessened certain neurotoxic effects. Similar extracts had even increased the production of important neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate. The spice had shown to improve memory as well.
Studies also propose a protective role of saffron in cerebral ischemia (inadequate blood supply to the brain). Preliminary studies also hint at saffron’s ability to treat depression. These cognitive benefits of saffron can be attributed to its antioxidant reinforcement.
However, it is important to note that saffron can be lethal if taken in extremely large doses. Consult your doctor before you use it.
6. Helps Cure Asthma
Reports throw light on saffron’s use for asthma since the ancient times. Traditional medicine has mentioned the use of saffron for this purpose. However, research is limited. Hence, consult your doctor for more details.
7. Promotes Digestion
Saffron was found to play a key role in promoting digestion and treating digestive disorders through its antioxidant effects and radical scavenging, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also shows potential in treating peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis.
8. Heals Wounds
Saffron can also heal wounds, especially those caused by burns. The spice was found to increase re-epithelialization in burn wounds.
9. Enhances Immunity And Energy Levels
The carotenoids in saffron can positively affect immunity. A study has found that sub-chronic use of 100 mg of saffron daily can have a temporary immunomodulatory activity without any harmful effects. Saffron petal extract was also found to increase the antibody response in laboratory rats.
Saffron is also believed to improve energy levels – but we don’t have clear evidence on this.
10. Is Good During Pregnancy
According to an Iranian study, saffron can increase the readiness of the cervix during term pregnancy. It also has the highest effect on effacement (shortening of the uterine cervix and the thinning of its walls). Also, the number of cesarean sections was lower in women who took saffron.
Conversely, some reports say that saffron can also be used to terminate pregnancy. Please consult your doctor in this regard. Take their advice.
11. Might Offer Relief From Menstrual Symptoms
There is limited evidence on saffron relieving menstrual symptoms. However, an Iranian herbal drug comprising of saffron was found to relieve primary dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation involving abdominal cramps).
12. Improves Heart Health
Due to its antioxidant properties, saffron helps maintain healthy arteries and blood vessels. And the spice’s anti-inflammatory properties also benefit the heart. Saffron is the richest source of riboflavin, an important vitamin for the heart. The crocetin in the spice indirectly regulates blood cholesterol levels and reduces the severity of atherosclerosis.
Saffron can also lower blood pressure, which otherwise would lead to heart attacks.
13. Enhances Liver Health
One study shows how cancer could be beneficial to patients with liver metastases. Saffron was also found to offer protection against structural liver damages. It also aids in the treatment of liver toxicity.
14. Works As An Aphrodisiac
Saffron was found to improve human sexual function – and that too, without the ill effects. Studies on human males with erectile dysfunction proved saffron to be marginally effective – but since there were no side effects, the spice holds great potential.
Saffron is beneficial to the male reproductive system as well. In yet another study, the crocin in saffron had improved mounting and erection frequencies in normal male rats. Similar effects are possible in humans too. Saffron is also effective on sperm morphology and motility in infertile men. Though it doesn’t increase the sperm count, it does help in the treatment of male infertility.
Crocin in saffron was also found to potentially reverse the damage caused to the male reproductive system due to extended nicotine use.
15. Relieves Insect Bites
Topical application of saffron extract is claimed to relieve insect bites. However, there is little research on this.
16. Treats Inflammation
One study by The University of Manchester has revealed that Egyptians used saffron to treat inflammation. And given the anti-inflammatory properties of saffron, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In another study, saffron could display protective effects in acute kidney injury caused by induced ischaemia. Even the saffron petal extracts possess anti-inflammatory properties.
Various sources state that saffron is also beneficial for improving blood flow, promoting cell formation and repair, and treating fever and toothache. But there is limited research available. Hence, talk to your doctor if you intend to use saffron for any of these ailments.