The Health Benefits of Saffron

Saffron is thought to reduce the risk of cancer and improve mood


Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Saffron comes from the thread-like structures, called stigmas, of the Crocus sativus flower. The stigmas are red and when they are dried, the spice becomes a golden color used to flavor food and dye foods and other products.

As the most expensive spice in the world, one pound of saffron costs between $500 and $5,000 dollars. The reason for this high value is the labor-intensive harvesting method, handpicked from each individual flower and dried over charcoal fires.

Used to flavor many Mediterranean and Asian dishes, saffron originated in Greece and is grown mainly in Iran but can be found in Spain, France, Italy, and parts of India. It has a strong aroma and bitter taste most commonly used to perfume and color rice, fish, and chicken dishes. In Greece, it was used for medicinal properties and people would eat saffron to boost mood, improve memory, and increase libido.

Health Benefits

While saffron has not been extensively studied, it does boast some impressive health benefits. Many individuals add it to food, but it can be taken as a supplement as well. Here are some potential benefits of saffron.

Physical Benefits

Saffron contains a host of plant compounds that act as powerful antioxidants and protect cells against free radicals and oxidative stress that can lead to cancer. Crocin and crocetin are antioxidants that are responsible for saffron's vibrant red color. These compounds are thought to have antidepressant effects, protect brain cells against damage, decrease inflammation, and reduce appetite.

Safranal is what gives saffron its distinct taste and smell. Evidence points to its ability to help improve mood, memory, and protect the brain against oxidative stress. Test-tube studies have shown that saffron and its antioxidant compounds kill different types of cancer cells or suppress their growth. While these studies are promising, much more research is needed.

Studies also show that saffron may help treat symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which is the physical and psychological symptoms that may occur before starting a menstrual period. One study showed that women who took 30 milligrams of saffron daily decreased irritability, headaches, cravings, and pain. Additionally, saffron was more effective than taking the placebo.

Additionally, animal and test-tube studies have indicated saffron's efficacy in reducing the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol and preventing clogged blood vessels. Saffron may also lower blood sugar and increase insulin sensitivity, as shown in mice studies.

While these results are promising, more research needs to be done on humans before recommending saffron supplementation for certain health conditions. However, there are some older studies that indicate that the antioxidants in saffron tea can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Researchers also note that the flavonoids found in saffron also can provide protection.

Mental Benefits

Saffron is known as the "sunshine spice," not only due to its bright yellow color, but also for its effects on helping to improve mood. One review study showed that taking saffron supplements was significantly more effective than placebos at treating mild to moderate depression symptoms.

Older studies have shown that taking 30 milligrams of saffron daily was as effective as taking conventional medications for depression and those individuals experienced fewer side effects. Always speak with a healthcare provider if you are considering using saffron as an adjunct to or in addition to other forms of mental health treatment, though.

Saffron has also shown to have aphrodisiac properties and may be particularly effective in individuals taking antidepressants. One study demonstrated that men with antidepressant-related erectile dysfunction had improved function after 30 milligrams of saffron daily over a 4-week period. For women taking antidepressants, taking 30 milligrams of saffron daily for 4 weeks reduced sex-related pain and increased libido compared to the placebo.

Nutrition Facts

While saffron is packed with antioxidants and affords a number of health benefits, it is not a significant source of macro or micronutrients. Saffron contains 2 calories in 1 teaspoon (0.7 grams).

Selection, Preparation, & Storage

When buying saffron, make sure the threads are a solid red color and that they are dry and brittle to the touch. Saffron should also smell strong and fresh. Store your saffron in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. It should last up to 6 months with maximum flavor and aroma.

Saffron can be purchased in whole threads or as powder. Buying the threads gives you more flexibility in cooking, as you can prepare dishes with the whole threads or you can simply crush the threads into powder to flavor and color dishes. Be sure that you are buying from somewhere you trust—where the saffron is 100% pure with no other spices mixed in.

If you are looking for a saffron supplement, they come in 20 milligram to 100 milligram doses. Speak with a healthcare provider before taking this supplement to determine what dose is best for your specific condition and to ensure it will not interact with any of your medications.

Most commonly used in cooking seafood dishes or paella, saffron makes a delicious and colorful addition to marinades for fish, chicken, and other stews. It can also be used to flavor rice and risotto. You can even make a tea out of saffron by steeping it in water, broth, or milk. The longer the saffron steeps, the stronger its color, aroma, and flavor.

Possible Side Effects

When used in cooking, saffron is safe with little to no known side effects or allergies in humans. While studies show humans can take up to 1.5 grams of saffron per day safely, only 30 milligrams of saffron has been shown enough to gain the health benefits.

High doses of saffron of 5 grams or more are shown to have toxic effects. There is evidence that pregnant women should avoid saffron at high doses as it may cause miscarriage.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does saffron last?

    Saffron maintains maximum flavor for up to 6 months. Store it in a dark, airtight container. While saffron won't spoil after 6 months, it will lose its flavor as it ages.

  • How do you make saffron tea?

    Saffron tea is easily prepared by steeping saffron threads in hot water. First, pour a little warm water over 4 to 5 saffron threads and steep for 5 minutes. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add the water with the threads and steep for another 5 minutes. Remove the threads and add honey or lemon if desired.

  • How do you use saffron extract to lose weight?

    Research has shown that taking a saffron extract supplement can aid in weight loss. One 8-week study showed that individuals who took saffron extract had a significant reduction in appetite, waist circumference, and total fat mass. Always speak with a healthcare provider before starting a supplement for weight loss.

  • How long does saffron take to work for depression?

    Saffron may start to work for depression as early as 1 week of taking the supplement. You will see continued benefits build over two months.

  • What is a substitute for saffron?

    The best substitute for saffron is turmeric as it echoes saffron's bright yellow color and earthy flavor. Use 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric for one large pinch of saffron threads. Harder to find than turmeric, annatto spice can also be used as a saffron replacement.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.