For over 4000 years people have used saffron as a spice and for its medicinal properties. From its origins in Crete, it spread across the Mediterranean and the world. Ancient cultures from the Assyrians to the Sumerians and Persians used saffron. It was an ingredient in their mystical potions. It was used for the relief of stomach ailments and depression. It was even used as an aphrodisiac.
Today saffron is revered by chefs for the golden color and rich flavor it imparts to food. It is also valued by those who appreciate its natural health and weight loss benefits. Despite its relatively high price, saffron is still in constant demand.
A Precious Spice
Saffron has long been known as one of the world’s most costly spices. This is because the saffron plant cannot be grown from seeds or mechanically harvested. Saffron is harvested by hand from the exotic Asian flower Crocus Sativus, also known as the saffron crocus. The spice comes from the flowers of the plant.
New saffron plants are grown from bulb-like growths on mature plants called corms. The corms are separated from the plant by hand, and each one will grow into one new plant. A plant can produce up to four flowers, and each flower will have three stigmas. A stigma is about an inch long and looks like a bright red thread. The stigmas are hand-picked, dried and sold as saffron. It takes about 500 flowers to produce one ounce of spice.
The Health Benefits of Saffron
The many health benefits of saffron come from the almost 200 chemical compounds that is contains. Among the most important of these are carotenoids and riboflavin.
Several nutrients fall under the general heading of carotenoids. One important feature of carotenoids is that they are antioxidants. Antioxidants help strengthen the immune system and can alleviate the symptoms of depression. Antioxidants also are important because they inhibit the actions of free radicals. Free radicals are a by-product of oxygen use. They can cause cell damage and are suspected to play a role in causing cancer. Some of the carotenoids in saffron include:
- Zeaxanthin – This compound is found in our retinas, and is not manufactured by the body. It must be obtained from plants. Studies have shown that zeaxanthin helps prevent the eye disease macular degeneration.
- Lycopene – Lycopene has been shown to lower the risk of several types of cancer. It also may reduce the risk of heart disease and macular degeneration.
- Carotene – Carotene is important to our bodies for many reasons. It helps produce vitamin A. It is a powerful antioxidant. It also may help prevent or minimize the decline of mental abilities caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
- Safranal and Crocin – Safranal and crocin have been found to reduce fatigue, improve sleep and cause a general feeling of well-being. They accomplish this by increasing the level of serotonin and other central nervous system chemicals in the body.
Riboflavin is an antioxidant and a B vitamin. Because vitamin B is not stored by the body, it must be replenished every day. Conditions caused by a deficiency of vitamin B include skin and mouth sores and anemia. Vitamin B is essential for healthy eyes, hair and skin. It is also needed for proper nervous system function. In addition, riboflavin helps prevent migraines and cataracts. Riboflavin is also important for our metabolism. It helps the body burn fat, burn carbohydrates and use protein.
Losing Weight with Saffron
Saffron has been shown to help people lose weight in two ways. It provides energy and helps prevent emotional eating.
- Better Workouts – The riboflavin in saffron helps the body burn carbohydrates. This provides more energy and makes longer and more effective workouts possible.
- Emotional Eating – For many people, one of the symptoms of stress and depression is overeating. When a person is in emotional distress, he or she may eat to feel better. The foods they choose are often high in carbohydrates. This is because carbohydrates stimulate the release of anti-depressant chemicals. Saffron has the same effect. This gives the person the same mood improvement that he or she would have gained by eating without feeling the need to eat.
Saffron has been used as a spice and a medicine since ancient times. It is prized in foods for its beautiful color and rich aroma and flavor. It provides essential nutrients. It is effective in preventing or alleviating many medical conditions. It even plays a role in weight loss. Saffron may be costly, but its many uses make it worth its weight in gold.
About the Author: Adrian Frank is a freelance writer who specializes in business, technology and health topics. You can read more of Adrian’s work on his website, www.adrianfrank.com.