Botanical name: Crocus sativus
Saffron belongs to the iris family, and has had a plethora of uses throughout millennia. As far back as the writings of Galen and Hippocrates, saffron was mentioned as a medical treatment for coughs, colds, stomach ailments, insomnia, uterine bleeding, scarlet fever, heart trouble, and flatulence.
Naturally, one of saffron's first uses may have been for dyeing textiles, since a single grain can color 10 gallons of water with a distinctive yellow hue. More than a grain is used, however, to color the bright orange robes worn by Buddhist priests in India. Three wispy saffron "threads" can be gleaned from each delicate crocus, which, ironically, is lavender-purple in color.
As a spice, saffron is known for what it does to energize dishes with a pungent, earthy essence. It's an ingredient used in Sweden, England, the U.S., and France, not to mention the countries where, collectively, around 50 tons are grown every year: Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Israel, Iran, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey. The commercial cost is about 50 million dollars, so it's a good thing saffron can remain fresh in an airtight container for several years.
Why so expensive, you may ask? Because the cultivation and harvest is still performed as it was since ancient times: by hand. Elderly village women are usually set on this task of removing the saffron "threads." It takes 4,500 crocus flowers to make up one ounce of saffron spice.
Of course, the high cost is a magnet for pretenders, who hawk saffron wannabes derived from substances other than the crocus flower. Indian safflower or compositae is one of them, a paler red version sometimes masquerading as the real thing.
It's been suggested that buying saffron at your local supermarket might not yield the freshest product. A better option might be obtaining it from an ethnic specialty grocery store. But make sure it's actually saffron you purchase, because another affectation is "meadow saffron" (Colchicum autumnale), which, although used as a medicine, can be quite toxic, so it should be strictly avoided.
Health Benefits of Saffron
It must be noted that no one will eat an ounce of saffron in one sitting; recipes usually call for half a teaspoon or less, but examining an ounce is a good way to determine the nutritional aspects of this intriguing spice. First, the manganese content is off the charts at nearly 400% of the daily recommended value! Everything else seems a little chintzy after that, but the next-largest nutritional quantities also are quite impressive: vitamin C - 38%; magnesium - 18%; and iron - 17%. Potassium and vitamin B6 both impart 14% of the daily recommended value.
Manganese helps regulate blood sugar, metabolize carbohydrates, and absorb calcium. It also helps form tissues, bones, and sex hormones. Vitamin C is an infection fighter; iron purifies your blood; and the vitamin B6 content helps form red blood cells and assures nerves will function as they should. Potassium helps balance fluids in cells, which, if low, can cause painful muscle cramps.
Beyond that, saffron contains more than 150 volatile compounds, among others. Picrocrocin, for instance, is the main substance responsible for the strong taste. Safranal brings saffron its characteristic odor and fragrance. Crocin, which delivers the intense orange color, is an indication of this spice's medicinal qualities, i.e. its powerful carotenoids and antioxidants that can protect your body from free radical damage.
Saffron Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: One (1) oz. of saffron (28 grams)
Amt. Per Serving
Studies on Saffron
Saffron extract has been shown to be capable of inhibiting and/or retarding the growth of tumors in a variety of experimental models in vivo. A topical application inhibited second-stage skin cancer, and oral administration of saffron extract restricted soft tissue sarcomas and inhibited tumor cell growth in mice. Several studies combined indicated that saffron also may be a promising agent for reducing the side effects from cisplatin (an early, often used cancer drug), including nephrotoxicity (toxicity in the kidneys).1
In another study, saffron was examined for its effects on aluminum toxicity and found to significantly reverse harmful aluminum-induced symptoms, such as memory loss and neurological disorders. Saffron extracts improved lipid peroxidation (important for inhibiting diseases in the body) and glutathione levels, which function in the destruction of free radicals. Scientists concluded that saffron has "neuroprotective potential under toxicity."2
Saffron Healthy Recipe: Halibut Couscous with Onion T'faya
½ cup raisins
5 Tbsp. coconut oil, divided
2 Tbsp. butter
8 saffron threads
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground turmeric
½ t tsp. each ground allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper
3 large onions, very thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 1/3 cups vegetable or chicken broth, divided
2 1/2 pounds halibut (or other wild-caught white fish), skinned and cut into 2-inch pieces
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup sliced almonds
1 cup whole-wheat couscous
Place raisins in a small bowl, cover with warm water, and let soak for 10 minutes. Drain.
Crush saffron and salt together in a mortar and pestle to grind to a coarse powder (or use a rolling pin). Combine with ginger, turmeric, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper in a small bowl.
Heat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil and butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add spices and cook, stirring until mixture starts to foam. Add onions, sugar, and plumped raisins. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions turn light brown – 20 to 25 minutes.
Add 1 cup broth, then place fish in center of the onion mixture. Cover and continue cooking until fish is flaky – 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, season with pepper, cover and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small skillet, over medium-high heat. Add almonds and stir for about a minute or until they just begin to turn golden. Drain on paper towels. Bring remaining 1 1/3 cups broth and 2 tablespoons of coconut oil to a boil in a small saucepan. Add couscous in a stream. Stir once. Cover, remove from heat, and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.
To serve, mound couscous on a shallow platter. Top with fish and onion t'faya and sprinkle almonds on top.
(From Dr. Mercola's book Healthy Recipes for your Nutritional Type )
Saffron Fun Facts
In the Middle Ages, saffron adulteration – the adding-to in order to expand the volume – was considered a serious crime, punishable by death. One source relates the doom of three individuals who were buried alive for their crime of "puffing their wares" – in this case, saffron.
Positively primeval, saffron is an exotic spice known to ancient writers such as Hippocrates. It comes from the purple crocus flower, related to the lily, containing three delicate fronds, or threads. It's indigenous to warm, humid climates, such as India, the Middle East, and Spain with uses ranging from textile-dying to its spicy goodness. But the nutritional aspects it imparts are as dramatic as its vibrant hue.
Manganese is by far the most prominent ingredient, as well as vitamin C, magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamin B6. These relate to the body for blood sugar regulation, calcium absorbsion and carbohydrate metabolism, as well as the healthy formation of tissues, bones and sex hormones. Vitamin C fights infection, iron purifies the blood and potassium helps balance fluids in the cells.
If you're not yet familiar with saffron's earthy, pungent flavor, try ½ teaspoon in jasmine rice. You may find saffron to be your new culinary favorite.