Saffron is a spice derived from the saffron crocus flower (Crocus sativus L.) that’s highly sought after due to its medicinal properties and culinary uses. Because of the popularity of saffron and the labor that goes into growing and harvesting this spice, it has a very high price tag. Saffron is currently considered the most expensive spice in the world.1

Saffron is enjoyed in many parts of the world and is a staple in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cooking. The spice has an earthy flavor and bright reddish-golden color due to its high concentration of plant pigments, such as the carotenoids crocin and crocetin. These and other substances found in saffron have health-promoting properties, and studies show consuming saffron could benefit health in several ways.

Contains Powerful Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Compounds 

Saffron is rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant substances, including carotenoids like crocin, crocetin, and picrocrocin, and terpenes like safranal, which are the main bioactive compounds found in saffron.

Crocitin, crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal have been shown to have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. Study findings suggest that regularly consuming saffron and taking saffron supplements may help reduce inflammation and lower markers of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a condition that occurs when there’s an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidant defenses in the body, which can lead to cellular damage.2

A study that included 80 people with type 2 diabetes found that participants who supplemented with 100 milligrams of saffron per day for 12 weeks had significant reductions in blood levels of malondialdehyde (MDA), a marker of oxidative stress, compared to a control group.3

Crocin and other protective compounds found in saffron may help prevent the production of ROS, reduce cellular damage, and increase levels of antioxidant enzymes. All of these factors can help protect against chronic disease development and improve overall health.2

May Improve Sleep

Research suggests the active substances found in saffron have sleep-inducing properties and may have a beneficial effect on sleep quality and duration.

A recent review that included five studies and 379 participants found that treatments containing saffron or its active substances, including crocin, helped improve sleep quality and sleep duration.4

The researchers suggested that saffron may help improve sleep by increasing levels of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin and acting on certain receptors in the brain to enhance sleep quality.4

While these results are promising, research is limited, and more studies on the effects of saffron on sleep are needed.

May Benefit Mental Health 

Saffron has shown promise as a natural treatment for mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.

A review of 23 studies found that, compared to placebo treatments, saffron treatments had a significant positive effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety. The review also noted that saffron had similar effects on depressive symptoms as antidepressant medications.5

Researchers think certain substances in saffron, such as crocin and safranal, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression by inhibiting the reuptake of mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This would increase levels of these feel-good chemicals in the brain.5

Although saffron shows promise as a natural treatment for some mental health disorders, more research in this area is needed. If you’re interested in trying saffron for a mental health disorder, it’s important to check with your healthcare provider first to ensure it’s a safe and appropriate option for your specific needs and diagnosis.

May Benefit Certain Eye Conditions  

Some studies suggest saffron may benefit people with conditions that impact the eyes, such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an eye disease that’s currently the leading cause of vision loss in older adults.6

Supplementing with saffron has been shown to improve vision in people with AMD and people with diabetic maculopathy, a complication related to diabetes. Saffron supplements have also been shown to reduce eye pressure in people with glaucoma, a condition characterized by increased pressure in the eye, which damages the optic nerve and causes vision loss.7

Since most eye diseases are caused by increased inflammation, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds found in saffron could help reduce inflammation in the eye. This could improve eye disease-related symptoms and protect against the progression of eye conditions.7

Could Boost Heart Health 

Due to saffron’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, adding the spice to your diet could help improve cardiovascular health.

Saffron interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing certain heart disease risk factors, such as high levels of blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

A review of 19 studies found that saffron treatments significantly reduced fasting blood sugar and diastolic blood pressure, as well as levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, compared to control treatments.8

Nutrition of Saffron

Saffron is usually consumed in such small quantities that it’s not a significant source of most vitamins and minerals. However, a typical serving of saffron is a good source of the mineral manganese and contains a small amount of vitamin C.9

A two-tablesoon serving of saffron contains:9

  • Calories: 13
  • Fat: 0.25 grams (g)
  • Carbohydrates: 2.74 g
  • Fiber: 0.16 g
  • Protein: 0.48 g
  • Vitamin C: 3.4 milligrams (mg) or 4% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Manganese: 1.19 mg or 52% of the DV

Saffron is a rich source of the mineral manganese, with a two-tablespoon serving covering over 50% of your daily needs for this nutrient.

Manganese is a mineral that’s involved in energy metabolism and immune and nervous system function. It’s also needed for the proper clotting of blood.10

In addition to manganese, saffron provides a small amount of vitamin C, a nutrient that functions as a powerful antioxidant in the body and is critical for important processes like immune system function and collagen synthesis.11

Risks of Saffron

When consumed in normal amounts, such as when using saffron as a spice in cooking, saffron is generally considered safe.12

Taking saffron supplements is also considered safe, but when taken in higher doses, saffron can lead to minor side effects such as dizziness, fatigue, dry mouth, anxiety, nausea, and headache in some people.13

Studies report that supplementing with up to 100 mg of saffron extract daily for up to 26 weeks is safe and not associated with significant side effects. However, taking saffron supplements for longer than 26 weeks or consuming more than five grams of saffron per day could lead to serious side effects, such as bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Ingesting more than 12 grams of saffron per day can be lethal.1214

There’s not enough evidence to support the safety of ingesting high levels of saffron in pregnancy. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid ingesting high doses of saffron, such as saffron supplements.1

Tips for Consuming Saffron

Saffron is typically sold as saffron threads, which are the stamen of the saffron crocus flower, but it is sometimes sold in ground form, too. Saffron has a unique, complex flavor that’s often described as earthy, yet subtly sweet.

Saffron is very expensive, so most people use it in small quantities. It’s also suggested to use saffron sparingly, as the flavor can easily overpower a dish.

This colorful spice is used in sweet and savory dishes and can elevate the flavor and color of recipes like puddings and bouillabaisse.

Saffron threads can be directly added to dishes like paella and soups. It can also be ground and added to a few tablespoons of hot or cold water for use in any dish.

Here are a few ways to use saffron:

  • Add saffron threads to soups and paella recipes
  • Try saffron in milk-based desserts such as puddings, panna cotta, and ice cream
  • Add saffron water to grain dishes, like rice pilaf and Biryani, a South Asian mixed rice dish
  • Use saffron to elevate meat, poultry, and fish dishes
  • Add a small amount of ground saffron to baked goods like cakes and bread
  • Make a saffron latte by adding a few threads of saffron to your heated milk

There are many more ways to use saffron, so don’t hesitate to try saffron in your favorite sweet and savory recipes.

A Quick Review

Saffron is a brightly-colored spice that’s high in health-promoting compounds, such as carotenoid antioxidants. Research findings suggest saffron has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and may improve heart health, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve sleep, and protect eye health.

Saffron is safe when consumed in normal amounts, but if you’re interested in using saffron supplements, it’s best to check with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s a safe and appropriate choice for your specific health needs.

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