Perhaps best known as the world’s most expensive spice, saffron has an alluring yellow colour and a subtly floral, slightly bitter taste. The golden strands are the dried stigmata (part of the female reproductive system) of Crocus sativus flowers. With a healthboosting reputation to match its price tag, saffron is packed full of antioxidants and many studies point to its cancer-fighting properties. It’s also said to be good for the brain. Some human studies suggest that taking 30mg per day may help to ease mild depression; others show that a daily dose may improve cognitive function in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. And that’s before we get to saffron’s famed aphrodisiac qualities, illustrated by an Iranian study showing that a month’s saffron treatment gave a boost to sexual function in women who had been treated for depression.
The spice contains hundreds of compounds, but its main biological components are safranal, crocin and picrocrocin, which deliver its aroma, colour and bitter taste. Of these, crocin and a related chemical called crocetin are largely responsible for its superpowers. Crocin has been shown to protect brain cells and act as an antidepressant, and also has a record of inhibiting tumour growth for a range of cancers in rodents, including breast and prostate.
At United Arab Emirates University, Dr Amr Amin’s team claims to have developed a method for treating cancerous liver cells using magnetite (iron) particles coated with crocin. “Our group provided evidence that saffron exerts a significant chemopreventative effect against both liver and colorectal cancer through different molecular mechanisms,” he says. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Kansas suggest that crocetin can inhibit pancreatic cancer cells, both in a petri dish and in mice. The team recently made crocetinic acid, which appears to have even more potent cancer-fighting
“A month’s saffron treatment gave a boost to sexual function in women who had been treated for depression”