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Saffron Spice

Saffron, The Golden Spice: History, Benefits and Uses

Published on September 12, 2021

Surely, you have already added this amazing red spice to your foods, desserts, and drinks, but have you ever wondered where this magic ingredient comes from? How should you use it, and what taste it would give to your dishes? Most importantly, how can you tell the difference between real and fake saffron?

No matter how many legend stories we have heard about this exotic spice, a lot of us still want to know more about its benefits and its worth of high cost.

Here’s everything you need to know.

History

With more than 3,500 years of cultivation and use history of saffron – the stigma of the crocus flower, it is believed its origin and firstly cultivation area has been Persia (Iran) and some stories of Greece. However, it is said that the best saffron primarily comes from Iran, Valencia in Spain, and India.

Saffron has been used as a food additive as well as a medicinal plant for a long time. Among the wealthy community of the East, it was highly used in foods, as a dye, remedies, and even magic. For instance, Indians used to dye the robes of Buddhist monks, silk and carpets with saffron stigmas as they considered the bright colour the epitome of beauty, meanwhile, the beautiful halls and baths of Imperial Rome used to be scented with exotic saffron perfumes. This story goes to Cleopatra, who used it in her beauty product, mixed with fat or soaked in donkey milk, for its eternal youthful properties.

Etymology

The melodic word “Saffron” came from the Persian word زرپران (zarparān) where zar means gold and par means flower’s blossom in Farsi, which literally means “golden leaves”.  It was converted to “zafaran” in Arabic, and the French word “Safran” was borrowed from this. Finally, the English word ‘saffron’ does come from this.

What makes saffron so valuable?

Somewhat similar to wine production, the quality of saffron varies between regions and producers. For more potent, high-quality saffron, the climate needs to be a hot, particularly stressful condition.

saffron, the world's most valuable spice
Saffron, the worlds most valuable spice.

It is directly affected by how carefully the crop is handled and the harvest season. The flowers are hand-picked, and production has a very low yield.  In other words, 100,000 flowers’ stigmas are required to make about a kilo of pure dried saffron, which is one of the reasons why this spice is so valuable in the world.

How can we distinguish real saffron from fake saffron?

Although the packaging may be labelled as saffron but can be entirely fake, stigmas may come from the safflower plant or be mixed with saffron powder and heavily adulterated with other substances.

This is how the safflower plant looks.

Speaking about quality, the following are a few key things helping you know how to spot fake saffron:

Appearance

First of all, saffron threads are horn-shaped. If a thread isn’t thin, tendril-like at the other end, it’s a fake. Also, if you soak pure saffron threads in cold water for a few minutes and then rub it between your fingers, they hold their shape without breaking apart, and your skin will turn yellow/orange.

a wooden bowl containing dried safflower
Safflower may seem particularly similar to saffron at first glance.

Smell and Taste

Good saffron smells sweet but tastes slightly bitter and earthy, whereas fake saffron tastes sweet and sometimes bitter-metallic.

Colour release in water test

Put the saffron in lukewarm water. Wait at least 15 minutes. An original saffron colour release would be slow and steady and gradually turns the water yellow. The colour change may take 15 minutes to an hour without the saffron threads losing their deep reddish colour. If the water changes colour very quickly or does not change colour, or if the threads lose their colour, it signifies the substance is not real saffron.

How saffron is used in food and medicine?

From ancient times to the present day, most of the saffron produced has had culinary uses. Its aroma and taste are rich and sweet and resemble honey, cinnamon and orange blossom all at once.

hand picking a pinch of dried saffron
Saffron is used in many foods and desserts

Find Saffron ideas, recipes & cooking techniques for all levels here, where food and culture meet.

Today, based on the incorporation of healthy and natural ingredients, in many countries using of synthetic food dyes has been banned and all returned to natural dyes; therefore, the powerful dyeing power of saffron, thanks to the high solubility of it in water, has been used for a long time to colour butter, cheeses, and pasta. The golden yellow colour of saffron is also used as textile dyes and in paintings.

Besides the saffron culinary uses and colour power, it has a significant role in the pharmaceutical industries and presents multiple interests for cosmetic applications due to its antioxidant properties.

Impressive Beauty and Health Benefits of Saffron

Saffron is high in antioxidants and is great for heart disease, depression, and insomnia.

Some healing properties related to saffron are listed below.

wooden bowl containing dried saffron
Saffron has many health benefits.

1. Cures acne

The anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of saffron make it an ideal ingredient for fighting acne and breakouts. 

Soak 5-6 fresh basil leaves and 2-3 drops of saffron extract or a few strands of saffron in clean water, and make it into a mush, then apply it on breakouts to clear them.

2. Lightens skin tone

The best way of reducing pigmentation, brown spots and other skin blemishes is to soak up 2 tbsp of turmeric powder with few strands of saffron in water or milk for 2 hours, make a paste and use it on your face to get fairer skin naturally. Alternatively, you can use few drops of saffron extract instead.

3. Promotes hair growth

Saffron is full of antioxidants, so it’s the best help to nourish your hair and make it healthy and shiny. Warm 2-3 strands of saffron or 1-2 drops of saffron extract up with your hair oil and massage your scalp regularly with this concoction for a healthy scalp and stronger hair.

As mentioned before, saffron has been linked to many potential health and medical benefits as per below. Nevertheless, further research is needed to draw more robust conclusions.

4. Antidepressant and boosting mood

According to new research and statistics, depressive disorder is one of the most common mental diseases and affects up to 21% of the world’s population.

Some studies show that saffron can keep the mood balance by changing the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain.

5. Promoting libido, and sexual function

Stress and anxiety can cause sexual dysfunction and lack of desire for sex. Saffron is used as a natural alternative to treat infertility and loss of libido to erectile dysfunction (ED) and many other sexual health issues. Crocin can boost sexual performance and sex drive in men and higher levels of arousal in women.

6. Reducing PMS symptoms

Studies have shown the role of herbal therapies to relieve PMS symptoms, especially on the effectiveness of saffron due to its main component, crocin. It offers a significant effect on the management of this disorder.

7. Enhancing weight loss

Some people eat to feel better or relieve stress, and unlike physical hunger, it can result in obesity. Saffron can suppress your appetite and prevent snacking. It would increase Serotonin, which controls emotional overeating and decrease your carvings.

8. Improving eyesight especially for age-related macular degeneration and cataracts (AMD)

There is a lot of study about the effectiveness of high concentrations of natural carotenoids in saffron, which can support optimal eye health.

It protects the retina from photo-oxidative damage by increasing blood flow to it and improving visual performance. Eventually, it shows a significant improvement in patients with early-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ARMD).

Are there any side effects to saffron?

For several centuries, saffron has been used as a food additive; it’s a safe ingredient for most people and easy to add to the diet.

dried saffron pistils and saffron flower in a bowl
How much saffron can you consume daily?

Although, it is not toxic when used orally in doses less than 5 g, more than this amount can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, whereas ingesting greater than 20 mg/day is very dangerous and may cause numbness, tingling in the hands and feet and yellowish skin and eyes.

How do I store saffron?

Good quality saffron should last for several years if stored in an air-tight container in a cool cupboard, away from the heat and sunlight. In the case of saffron extract, you can keep it in the fridge; it can be preserved for a longer time.

The Bottom Line

Saffron is a powerful spice known as the sunshine of the Middle East. Apart from its distinct flavour, smell, and colour, it is high in antioxidants and linked to lots of extraordinary beauty and health benefits.

Ideally, it’s safe for most people and ready to use in your diet. Try incorporating pure and premium saffron threads into your dishes or even make it easier in powdered form by purchasing saffron and its grinder together online.

To take more advantage of its potential health benefits, saffron tea is my personal recommendation.

Also, saffron extract has always been a highly prized product, as due to its more refine flavour and greater potency, you need to use only a very small amount in your dishes.

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