What Is Saffron? Saffron Benefits & Recipes to Try

Saffron - Dr. Axe

Saffron is one of the most valuable and expensive spices known worldwide, thanks to its color, flavor and medicinal properties. What medicinal properties, you may ask? The list is extensive and continues to grow.

As one of the most important herbs and spices in the world and top 14 herbs of the Bible, experimentation is underway when it comes to exploring the new potential for this versatile spice — a spice that’s been shown to boost the heart, mind and more for centuries.

Saffron typically comes in very small quantities because it’s so pricey. Why is saffron so expensive? You’re about to find out!

What Is Saffron? Where Does It Come From?

The saffron plant (Crocus sativus) is a member of the Iridaceae family of flowers, which also includes irises. The saffron crocus is a perennial plant that grows from a bulb and flowers in the fall. What about the culinary spice you know and love? The spice actually comes from the stigma of the saffron flower, which is separated and dried. The dried stigmas hold great importance in the production of cosmetics, pharmaceutics and textile-dye industries, along with cooking. While the saffron flower is purple, the spice spice color is a pungent red.

What is so special about this spice? It takes about 75,000–125,000 flowers to produce just one pound. Growing saffron and harvesting it requires a lot of work, as you can see, which is why the saffron price is so high. How much is real saffron? A single pound can cost as much as $5,000. This shocking saffron cost makes it the world’s most expensive spice.

This exotic spice is native to Southern Europe but can be found in many countries today. Is saffron grown in Australia? It grows all over the world on all continents minus Antarctica. Where is the best saffron in the world? That’s debatable, but currently the the largest producer is Iran.

For centuries, there have been many uses of this spice. Egyptian healers used it to treat gastrointestinal ailments, and in Roman times, it was used to promote wound healing and relieve upper respiratory complaints. Other saffron uses in traditional medicine include as an abortifacient and in the treatment of spasms, fever, colds, bronchitis and insomnia. In folk and Ayurvedic medicine, it was used as an expectorant, sedative, anti-asthma herb, adaptogen, emmenagogue and in various opioid preparations for pain relief during the 16th—19th centuries.

This treasured herb was mentioned in the Old Testament in Songs of Solomon, along with myrrh, aloe, calamus and cinnamon, as one of the most precious spices. Clearly, the history of this valuable herb is extensive, but what are the benefits of saffron today? Let’s take a look.

Health Benefits

1. Boosts Cardiovascular Health

Recent studies show great promise of saffron constituents in the promotion of a healthy cardiovascular system. Heat shock proteins (HSPs) 27, 60 and 70 in particular are significantly linked to metabolic syndrome and atherosclerosis so researchers wanted to investigate the effect of this herb on antibody titers to HSP in patients with metabolic syndrome.

The levels of heat shock proteins 27, 60, 65 and 70 were measured in a study published in the Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine during supplementation, with 105 participants diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. The participants were randomly put into two groups and were given either 100 milligrams a day of a placebo or saffron. After three months, the antibodies to heat shock proteins 27 and 70 went down greatly in the saffron group. 

2. Helps Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction (ED) affects more than 150 million males throughout the world. In traditional medicine, saffron is an aphrodisiac, with its chemical compound known as crocin credited for its aphrodisiac activity. In a pilot study to evaluate this traditional use, 20 male participants with ED were evaluated for 10 days. Each morning, the participants took a saffron supplement containing 200 milligrams of this spice. The participants underwent the nocturnal penile tumescence test and the international index of erectile function questionnaire (IIEF-15) at the start of supplementation and at the end of 10 days.

After the 10 days of supplementation, there was a statistically significant improvement in tip tumescence and rigidity as well as base tumescence and rigidity. The ILEF-15 total scores were significantly higher after participants were supplemented with this herb. There was a positive effect on sexual function with increased duration and number of erectile events seen in men with erectile dysfunction after taking it for 10 days. Thus, this traditional spice also potentially works as a natural remedy for impotence.

3. Possesses Potential Anticancer Effects

Cancer is a leading cause of death in the world today. Saffron as a medicinal plant is known for its anticancer capabilities, making it a potential natural cancer treatment. In a randomized, double-blind clinical trial published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine, the effects of the spice on response to treatment in patients suffering from cancers with liver metastasis were evaluated. Thirteen participants suffering from liver metastases were a part of this study and then divided into two different groups. Both groups received chemotherapy regimen. Participants in group 1 were given a saffron capsule (50 milligrams, twice daily) during chemotherapy periods while group 2 received a placebo.

A sum of the longest diameter was calculated and compared for all lesions in IV contrast CT scan before and after the treatment. Out of the 13 who participated, six quit and seven continued until the end. In the saffron group, two participants showed partial and complete response (50 percent), whereas in placebo group no response was seen. Also, two deaths in the placebo and one in saffron group occurred. This research suggests that the herb might be useful in patients suffering from cancers with liver metastasis. 

4. Alleviates Symptoms of PMS

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is among the most common health problems for women, affecting 2o percent to 40 percent of women of reproductive age. Saffron is considered an excellent antispasmodic so researchers at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences’ Vali Asr Reproductive Health Research Center assessed whether it could alleviate symptoms of PMS. Women aged 20—45 years with regular menstrual cycles who experienced PMS symptoms for at least six months were eligible for the study. Women were randomly assigned to either group A, who received 15 milligrams of capsule saffron twice a day in the morning and evening, or group B, who received a capsule placebo twice a day for a two menstrual cycles.

The women were evaluated for PMS symptoms using a Premenstrual Daily Symptoms (PDS) questionnaire and Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). Results showed a significant improvement in both tests (PDS and HAM-D) for the women in the saffron group compared to their pre-treatment symptoms and also showed a significant improvement in PMS symptoms compared to the placebo group. 

5. Promotes Satiety and Weight loss

In a Malaysian study, researchers wanted to investigate the satiety property of this herb as another one of the many saffron benefits. They gave women participants a capsule of Satiereal twice daily or an inactive placebo with no restrictions in dietary intake. After two months, the participants using the saffron extract reported a decrease in snacking and lost more weight than the control group. 

The researchers conclude that saffron extract may help metabolic functions and fight obesity by curbing the appetite and promoting weight loss.

6. Improves Anxiety and Depression

Depression is a serious disorder in today’s society, with estimates of lifetime prevalence as high as 21 percent of the general population in some developed countries. As a therapeutic plant, Persian traditional medicine uses saffron for depression, and researchers wanted to assess the efficacy this herb in the treatment of mild to moderate depression in a six-week clinical trial.

Thirty adult outpatients who met the clinical interview for depression participated in the trial. Participants had a baseline Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression score of at least 18. In this double-blind, single-center trial, participants were randomly assigned to receive a capsule of the herb (30 milligrams a day) in group 1 or a capsule of the antidepressant imipramine (100 milligrams per day) in group 2 for a six-week study. Saffron at this dose was found to be effective in a similar manner to imipramine to improve mild to moderate depression.

In another study published in the Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine, 60 adult participants with anxiety and depression were randomized to receive a 50 milligram saffron capsule or a placebo capsule twice daily for 12 weeks. The questionnaires Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) were used at baseline, six and 12 weeks after starting medication. Fifty-four participants completed the trial. As a result, the supplementation of saffron had a significant effect on scores of depression and anxiety in comparison to placebo during 12 weeks. 


Saffron nutrition and benefits - Dr. Axe

Nutrition Facts

One tablespoon of saffron (approximately two grams) contains about:

  • 6 calories
  • 1.3 grams carbohydrates
  • 0.2 gram protein
  • 0.1 gram fat
  • 0.1 gram fiber
  • 0.6 milligram manganese (28 percent DV)
  • 1.6 milligrams vitamin C (3 percent DV)
  • 5.3 milligrams magnesium (1 percent DV)
  • 0.2 milligram iron (1 percent DV)
  • 5 milligrams phosphorus (1 percent DV)
  • 34.5 milligrams potassium (1 percent DV)

What Does Saffron Taste Like and How Can I Use It?

The edible part of saffron is the stigma, which is a long, thin, stalk within the flower. Throughout history, this herb has been available as ground or whole stigmas (threads). It’s best to go with the saffron threads for high-quality saffron taste. There is isn’t any good saffron substitute, and because of its price, many attempts are made to pass off imitations. Pay caution to the tasteless, cheap, similar-colored spice called safflower.

What does saffron taste like? It is highly flavorful and aromatic, with a spicy, pungent and slightly bitter taste. So what is saffron used for? The threads are used in many rice dishes as well as with vegetables, meats, seafood, poultry and in baked goods. They add a sharp, almost medicinal flavor and a beautiful yellow-orange color to the dish. You can also use the threads to make saffron tea.

Are you wondering where to buy saffron? Saffron spice is readily available in most specialty markets, and because of its high value, it may be stocked in a secured area. If you don’t see any on the shelves, ask the store manager. It is usually sold bulk in wooden boxes or packaged in foil in order to protect it from harsh conditions, such as light and air. If you want to learn how to grow saffron in your garden, check out this article, “Saffron crocus: A spice worth growing.”

Recipes and How to Store It

You can use this delicious herb in so many different saffron recipes. For instance, it’s a staple in one of my favorite Daniel Fast recipes, harira, and of course is integral to any saffron rice recipe. There are also a lot of delicious saffron Indian dishes like Kashmiri Chicken, Cardamom and Saffron Pilau.

Here are a few other recipes to try:

The best way to store this spice is in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

Risks and Side Effects

Saffron is generally safe for most people when taken by mouth as a medicine for up to six weeks. Possible side effects may include anxiety, change in appetite, dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, nausea and headache.

It is possible to be allergic to this herb. If you have allergies to plant species like LoliumOlea (includes olive) and Salsola then you may be allergic to saffron. Seek medical attention if you believe you are exhibiting signs of a serious allergic reaction.

High doses of this spice are typically unsafe and can even cause poisoning, including serious side effects like a yellow appearance of the skin and eyes, dizziness, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, or bleeding from the nose, lips and eyelids. Doses of 12-20 grams can cause death.

Saffron is not recommended in amounts larger than what is typically found in food for pregnant women since large amounts may cause the uterus to contract and might cause a miscarriage. Check with your health care provider before taking it medically if you are breastfeeding or being treated for any medical conditions, especially a bipolar disorder, low blood pressure or a heart condition.

Combining it with other herbs or supplements with hypotensive capabilities might increase the risk of hypotension (low blood pressure). Some of these herbs and supplements include andrographis, casein peptides, cat’s claw, fish oil, CoQ10, L-arginine, stinging nettle, lycium and theanine. Check with your health care provider before supplementing with saffron along with any other medications or supplements. 

Final Thoughts

  • Saffron has been used in traditional medicine for centuries and continues to be a prized spice for medicinal purposes to this day.
  • Research shows that it may be helpful in alleviating symptoms of PMS, depression, anxiety, and promoting weight loss and enhancing satiety.
  • It is commercially available at specialty stores and online as a powder or in the form of threads. 
  • This spice makes an aromatic, flavor enhancing and health boosting addition to so many recipes including soups, main courses and desserts.

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