What is saffron?

Saffron has been named the world’s most expensive spice. When used in cooking, the threadlike strands impart a golden crimson colour and subtle flavour to a dish. Saffron comes from the delicate red stigma (the female part of a plant that catches pollen) of the crocus sativus plant. To produce saffron, the stigmas must be painstakingly handpicked, and then carefully laid out and placed over heat until dried to deepen the flavour. Saffron’s high price tag is due to this labour-intensive harvesting method which makes the spice so costly even for a small amount.


Saffron’s sumptuous colour, in addition to its exotic, slightly sweet taste and penetrating aromatic scent, makes the spices essential to a number of classic dishes including the French fish stew bouillabaisse and the rice dish paella. Saffron is also used extensively in Indian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, not only for its flavour but for its ability to add a brilliant golden hue to food.

Benefits of saffron include:

  1. May protect against neurodegenerative disorders
  2. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety benefits
  3. Lower blood pressure
  4. May increase libido
  5. Can lead to better sleep
  6. Rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants
  7. May help with PMS
  8. Boosts eye health

Discover our saffron recipes, from saffron butter chicken or saffron chicken korma, to honey saffron cake.

Saffron chicken korma in a pan

Nutritional profile of saffron

1 tablespoon of saffron provides:

More like this
  • 6.5kcal
  • 1.4g carbohydrate
  • 0g sugars
  • 0.2g protein
  • 0.08g fibre
  • 0.12g fat
  • 2mg calcium
  • 0.23mg iron

What are the top health benefits of saffron?

1. It may support memory and cognitive function

Saffron contains antioxidants which support brain health, memory and learning. It is specifically the antioxidant safranal that may help improve mood, memory and learning ability, as well as protect brain cells against oxidative stress. A meta-analysis shows that saffron may have a beneficial effect on mild cognitive impairment, even slowing cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's patients.

2. It has anti-depressant and anti-anxiety benefits

Known as the ‘sunshine spice’, saffron has been shown to help support positive mood and maintain emotional balance. Research found that supplementing with 30mg of saffron each day had a significant effect on the severity of mild-to-moderate depression. In another study that looked at depression and anxiety, it was found that taking 30mg of saffron daily was as effective as a trio of prescription drugs. Further links have been found to suggest that saffron can enhance emotional wellbeing, too.

3. It can lower blood pressure

Saffron is high in antioxidants which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. The specific antioxidants in saffron can help to protect the body from the oxidative stress that may lead to cell damage and disease, including high blood pressure. One review showed that saffron supplementation may significantly improve both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in adults.

4. It may help boost libido

Research suggests that saffron can help with sexual dysfunction in both men and women, however further research is required to extend initial findings.

5. Can help a better night’s sleep

Saffron intake has been linked to improvements in sleep quality in adults with self-reported sleep complaints. The amount of saffron required to improve quality of sleep is a supplement of around 100mg per day. Researchers continue to investigate the efficacy of different doses of saffron for insomnia.

6. Rich in antioxidants

Antioxidants are plant compounds with potent health benefits. Saffron contains more than 100 of them, including crocin, crocetin, kaempferol and safranal. A variety of biological properties have been associated with these phytochemicals, including disease prevention due to their ability to fight free radicals, which can help prevent chronic and acute illness. They are also responsible for saffron’s colour, bitter taste and distinctive aroma.

7. May reduce PMS symptoms

Premenstrual syndrome is a term that describes physical, emotional and psychological symptoms occurring before the start of a period. Research has shown that taking saffron as a herbal supplement may help with irritability, headaches and pain.

8. Improves eye health

Saffron is also associated with improved eye health due to the eye-boosting carotenoids it contains. Plus research has found saffron to improve macular degeneration symptoms while also helping prevent vision loss.

A storage jar lying on its side, spilling threads of saffron

Is saffron safe for everyone?

Saffron as a spice is generally regarded as safe and, because of its intense flavour and strong colour, very little saffron is required in most dishes. If consumed in very large amounts, saffron is toxic – although due to its high price, saffron poisoning is very rare. The allergic potential is low.

As with most herbal supplements, further research is needed to ensure saffron's long-term safety and understand how it affects individuals based on age, gender and overall health.

The bottom line…

Due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, adding saffron to your daily routine can be a simple yet effective way to promote your overall health and well-being. The growing body of research demonstrates saffron’s promising benefits to help prevent and sometimes even treat a variety of age-related diseases. With such a high price tag, it’s fortunate that a little goes a long way!

Further reading:

What is the anti-inflammatory diet?

Health benefits of rice

Health benefits of cinnamon

Healthy rice recipes


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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