It is one of the world’s most valuable spices. Patiently collected flower by flower, the deep red stamens of the saffron crocus can fetch up to Pounds 500 per pound, writes Anastasia Stephens.
But now there is more reason than ever to covet it. A study at Sydney University and the University of L’Aquila in Italy has found that when eaten, saffron may protect eyes from UV damage and slow the progress of diseases such as macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.
In macular degeneration, the cells in the retina at the back of the eye, which are responsible for clear vision, begin to die. But when patients with macular degeneration taking part in the study began eating a diet containing saffron, these cells began to recover. Professor Silvia Bisti, who led the research, says: ‘Saffron appears to affect genes that regulate the fatty-acid content of the cell membrane, and this makes the vision cells tougher and more resilient.’ The 25 participants in the study took saffron supplements or a placebo every day for three months. All those who took the saffron pill experienced improved vision, but the improvements disappeared when they stopped taking it.
Monique Simmonds, who investigates medicinal properties of plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, explains: ‘The unique compounds found naturally in saffron that we believe may have medicinal value include crocin and safranal. They belong to a family called carotenoids, which includes betacarotene [a type of Vitamin A]. Carotenoids give plants such as carrots or red peppers their colour.
‘Studies show that these compounds play key roles in preserving eyesight, protecting against cancer and preventing Alzheimer’s.’ Added to pilau rice, risotto and dishes such as paella, saffron threads give a slightly bitter taste as well as a yellow colour. To replicate the Italian study, 20mg of neat saffron – about 16 threads – would need to be eaten daily.
A study of its anti-cancer properties at the National Institute of Paediatrics in New Mexico found that crocin and safranal actively prevent cancer cells from dividing. ‘Several studies have confirmed anti-tumour properties of saffron,’ says Fikrat Abdullaev, who conducted the study. ‘Research has found that saffron boosts immunity by helping white blood cells to mature, as well as increasing levels of enzymes that help the body break down toxins.’ Research published in the British Journal Of Gynaecology found that saffron eased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. Fifty women with PMS received either 30mg of saffron twice a day or placebo capsules. Those taking the saffron reported marked improvements in symptoms such as depression, irritability and mood swings.
However, 1g of saffron is expensive – around Pounds 6. It is not yet available in supplement form and the quality of culinary saffron can vary hugely.