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Saffron - why it's a valuable ancient spice

Wednesday January 18, 2023
Saffron - why it

Saffron is a spice derived from the stigmas of the pretty flower, Crocus sativus. When the flowers bloom in October, yielding two or three fragile stigmas, they must be gently hand-harvested.


It is native to Southwest Asia and widely cultivated in Iran, where it has been given the name ‘Red Gold’. This distinctly coloured vibrant red spice, with a bitter taste, is a sought-after ingredient and often described as the most expensive spice in the world. 


Cultivation and use of saffron spans over more than 3,500 years, and it has application in cooking, preservatives and dyes, but also a long medicinal history. Historical texts suggest Cleopatra, used saffron in her baths for its cosmetic properties. Egyptian healers used this spice for treating gastrointestinal ailments, and the Romans used it as a deodorizer. This unique herbal plant also has a long history of use for improving mood and mental health, during depression and premenstrual syndrome. 

There are three main bioactive compounds in saffron: safranal - a major component responsible for its unique aroma, picrocrocin - responsible for saffron’s bitter taste and crocin - the coloured compound. 

One of the best-known qualities of saffron is its uplifting and antidepressant activity. Its application for treating mild-moderate depression has been widely studied and results strongly support a beneficial effect in reducing symptoms and enhancing cognitive abilities. Subsequent clinical trials have demonstrated that saffron is a safe and effective solution for treating symptoms of premenstrual syndrome in women aged between 20-45 years. Results found an improvement in mood and pain and abdominal discomfort was relieved.


This unique herbal plant also has a long history of use for improving mood and mental health, during depression and premenstrual syndrome.  Additionally, contemporary studies have shown saffron to interact with eating behaviours, in particular, the reduction of bingeing in binge eating disorder and stress related eating.  On the whole the mechanism of action is suspected to revolve around the efficiency of serotonin, as opposed to increasing serotonin, however a recent study in chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder patients showed that saffron induced a significant anti-inflammatory effect.  Which may suggest the beneficial effects of saffron lie not only in efficiency of serotonin but also a reduction of inflammation.

So, there is a lot more to this vibrant ancient spice than meets the eye. Maybe saffron does live up to the title of the most valuable spice in the world.

Saffron is the Viridian Ingredient of the Year 2018. To find out why click here.


Author: The Nutrition Support Team at Viridian Nutrition.


Viridian Nutrition is the leading supplier of food supplements to specialist independent health food stores. For information about personalised solutions visit




Akhondzadeh Basti A, Moshiri E, Noorbala AA, et al. Comparison of petal of Crocus sativus L. and fluoxetine in the treatment of depressed outpatients: a pilot double-blind randomized trial. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 2007;31(2):439–42. 

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Agha-Hosseini M, Kashani L, Aleyaseen A, et al. Crocus sativus L. (saffron) in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: a double-blind, randomised and placebo-controlled trial. BJOG. 2008 Mar;115(4):515-9

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Rameshrad, Maryam, Bibi Marjan Razavi, and Hossein Hosseinzadeh. "Saffron And Its Derivatives, Crocin, Crocetin And Safranal: A Patent Review." Expert Opinion on Therapeutic Patents (2017): 1-19. Web.

Aslani, M., Abdollahi, N., Matin, S., Zakeri, A., & Ghobadi, H. (2023). Effect of Crocin of Crocus sativus L. on Serum Inflammatory Markers (IL-6 and TNF-a) in COPD patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. British Journal of Nutrition, 1-19.

Gout B, Bourges C, Paineau-Dubreuil S. Satiereal, a Crocus sativus L extract, reduces snacking and increases satiety in a randomized placebo-controlled study of mildly overweight, healthy women. Nutr Res. 2010 May;30(5):305-13.  


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