Saffron has been one of the world’s most prized spices for thousands of years, used by ancient empires to dye clothing, scent perfume, and flavor food. Alexander the Great added it to his baths to help heal battle wounds, as did Cleopatra, whose daily saffron-infused mare’s milk bath was said to have enhanced her legendary beauty. We have heard so much about it and it continues to take on the persona as being one of the most important herbs out there. Which of course is also coming with a hefty price. But the question that lies is whether saffron is really deserving of this build-up hype? As it turns out, it isn’t always easy to get this amazing spice as we do. Hence there is plenty of effort that goes into claiming this spice. And how it is, we will be looking into the same in this article.
Saffron threads are the stigmas found in the center of the Crocus sativus, a purple flower in the Iris family that’s better known as the saffron crocus. There are only three of the orange-yellow stigmas in each flower, which means it takes a lot of flowers to make a little bit of saffron. Each pound of saffron contains between 15 and 20 thousand stigmas. If you were to grow your own saffron, you would need 75 thousand of these flowers to get a single pound! But that’s not the only reason why saffron is so expensive. The flowers are very delicate, and the only way to properly remove their saffron threads is to pluck them by hand. It’s so delicate, in fact, that if the saffron threads aren’t picked shortly after the flowers have bloomed, they’ll wilt and become unusable. It takes about 370 to 470 hours of labor to harvest one pound of saffron.
On top of being delicate, saffron flowers aren’t the easiest to grow. They can’t be exposed to too much sunlight, can’t be overwatered, and don’t fare well in cold weather; even a single day of frigid temperatures can be enough to destroy an entire crop. Saffron flowers are planted in the summer and are ready to harvest in mid to late autumn. When it’s time to harvest, the saffron threads must be plucked shortly after sunrise to prevent them from being damaged by the heat of the midday sun.
Saffron Health Benefits
Saffron contains an impressive variety of plant compounds that act as antioxidants which protect your cells against free radicals and oxidative stress. Crocin and crocetin are carotenoid pigments and responsible for saffron’s red color. Both compounds may have antidepressant properties, protect brain cells against progressive damage, improve inflammation, reduce appetite, and aid weight loss. Research has shown it improves your mood, memory, and learning ability, as well as protects your brain cells against oxidative stress.
Being high in antioxidants, it helps neutralize harmful free radicals. Free radical damage has been linked to chronic diseases, such as cancer. In test-tube studies, saffron and its compounds have been shown to selectively kill colon cancer cells or suppress their growth, while leaving normal cells unharmed. This effect also applies to skin, bone marrow, prostate, lung, breast, cervix, and several other cancer cells.
Another amazing benefit that you probably didn’t know of is how it helps in treating the PMS symptoms. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a term that describes physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms occurring before the start of a menstrual period. In women 20–45 years of age, taking 30 mg of saffron daily was more effective than a placebo at treating PMS symptoms, such as irritability, headaches, cravings, and pain. Another study found that simply smelling saffron for 20 minutes helped reduce PMS symptoms like anxiety and lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
As it turns out, saffron may also help in curbing your appetite to help you in your weight loss goals. Snacking is a common habit that may put you at risk of gaining unwanted weight. Saffron may help prevent snacking by curbing your indulgence requirements and drive. In one eight-week study, women taking saffron supplements felt significantly more full, snacked less frequently, and lost significantly more weight than women in the placebo group . Taking a saffron extract supplement helped significantly reduce appetite, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and total fat mass. However, scientists are unsure how saffron curbs appetite and aids weight loss. One theory is that saffron elevates your mood, which in turn reduces your desire to snack.
In small doses, saffron has a subtle taste and aroma and pairs well with savory dishes, such as paella, risottos, and other rice dishes. The best way to draw out saffron’s unique flavor is to soak the threads in hot — but not boiling — water. Add the threads and the liquid to your recipe to achieve a deeper, richer flavor. It really works if you buy the threads, as they give you more versatility and are less likely to be impacted by your mode of cooking and serving. Though saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, a small amount goes a long way, and you often won’t need more than a pinch in your recipes. In fact, using too much saffron can give your recipes an overpowering medicinal taste.