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A Spice as Good as Gold Saffron
As much as we prize botanicals for their health benefits, it’s rare to hear of a plant that is often treasured on par with gold, unless we’re talking about the exotic spice saffron (Crocus sativus L.). One of the world’s most revered and valuable spices, saffron is obtained from fragile red-coloured filaments picked off tiny flowers that bloom for less than one month a year. The saffron filaments (or threads) are actually the dried stigmas of the saffron flower.
Each flower contains only three stigmas. These threads must be picked by hand from each flower, with more than 75,000 of these flowers needed to produce just one pound of saffron. This labour intensive and careful extraction process is one reason why saffron is considered by many to be the most precious spice on Earth. Saffron originated in central Asia, and is now widely cultivated in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Its name is derived from the Arabic word za'faran meaning yellow. When dried, the stigmas produce the very potent carotenoid compound α-crocin, which gives the stigmas their characteristic golden yellow colour. It also contains other carotenoids including zeaxanthin, lycopene, α- and β-carotenes. These are important antioxidants that act as immune modulators and help protect the body from oxidative stress, cancers and infections.
Saffron has been prized for its flavour, colour and medicinal properties in healing traditions throughout the world. It is naturally rich in minerals like potassium, calcium, manganese, copper, iron, selenium, zinc, and magnesium. It is also a good source of important vitamins including vitamin A, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin C and folic acid. The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications including antidepressant, antiseptic, digestive, anti-convulsant, anti-spasmodic and aphrodisiac properties.
In Ayurveda, saffron is used to counteract inflammatory conditions associated with excess Pitta (fire), while powerfully stimulating circulation and regulating the spleen, liver, and heart. Because saffron is a blood purifier and an enhancer of blood flow, it is often used as a cardiac tonic for those with heart disease. Other health issues for which it has found a use in traditional medicine include digestive problems, insomnia and menstrual pains. Saffron is also reputed to help keep vision sharp. Test findings suggest this spice reverses age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, the most common cause of blindness in the elderly.
Research studies have shown that safranal, a volatile oil found in the spice, and α-crocin, a non-volatile compound, both have powerful antioxidant, antidepressant and anti-cancer properties. Crocetin, another important carotenoid constituent of saffron, has shown significant potential as an anti-tumor agent in animal research.
Saffron may also inhibit the aggregation and deposition of beta amyloid in the human brain and may therefore be useful in Alzheimer's disease. One double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 46 patients over 16 weeks found that patients receiving 30 mg of saffron per day demonstrated significantly better cognitive function than patients receiving a placebo. The authors concluded that saffron is both safe and effective short-term in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Although commonly found bearing a yellow hue, saffron is considered most powerful and valuable when it is reddish-orange in colour, with many considering this variety to be the only true saffron. As a general rule, the redder the strands, the better the quality. Saffron is available both in filaments and powder, though the long, deep red filaments are usually preferable to the powder as the latter can be easily adulte