The most expensive spice in the world, saffron wears its golden hue well. Likely native to the Mediterranean area, saffron is believed to be one of the first spices cultivated for use in medicines, perfumes, dyes, and foods; centuries-old documents, ranging from healing manuals to Bibles, reference saffron. It also is a folkloric cure-all for various ailments, including colds, digestive problems and depression; its golden threads have long been tied to gods and royalty, magic and astrology.

Saffron is harvested from the dried, dark red stigmas of the purple saffron crocus (Crocus sativus L.), a member of the iris family. Its tiny threadlike filaments are so delicate they must be hand harvested. It takes about 80,000 flowers (240,000 stigmas) to produce a pound of saffron, which can cost upward of $2,000. Due to its steep price, saffron has a history of being adulterated with coloring agents like turmeric and safflower to extend and even sometimes replace the expensive ingredient. Three distinct compounds combine to make saffron as healthy as it is valuable. Safranal provides the spice's pungent odor, picrocrocin its bitter flavor, and crocin its striking color. The carotenoid crocin accompanies an impressive number of other carotenoids, which possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, including zeaxanthin and lycopene.

The health benefits of saffron, hailed since ancient times, continue to reveal themselves in modern science. Several studies this year alone show saffron's protective potential against cancer. Evidence that saffron may help fight liver cancer by killing cancer cells and inhibiting cell proliferation was published in the May 2011 issue of Hepatology, and it may be effective in the treatment of lung cancer according to a cell study published in the May 2011 issue of Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology. Saffron also has shown promise in the management of depression (Alternative Medicine Review, March 2011) and dementia symptoms, including Alzheimer's disease (Drugs and Aging, June 2011.)

Available as whole threads and powder, threads have more robust flavor and no other added ingredients, as powdered saffron might. Look for threads with a bright red-orange hue, avoiding gray streaks or light spots. Keep saffron in a sealed container away from heat and light for six months to maintain maximum flavor. The secret of saffron is that a little goes a long way. Just a pinch adds enough season and color for a whole dish. It is traditionally served in savory risottos, paellas and curries, and added to a vegetable saute or rice for its characteristic blast of flavor and brightness. Discover, as well, that saffron is just as savory in bakery items, yogurt and desserts.

Notable Nutrients

Saffron, 1 tsp threads

Manganese: 0.1 milligrams (7 percent Daily Value)

Phytochemicals (levels not available):









Spices, Saffron, Health


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