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What is Saffron?

Saffron is a pungent red-coloured spice used for its flavour, aroma and colour. The trade of saffron has extended far and wide across the globe for thousands of years. As a spice, the colour, taste and aroma of saffron make it an essential ingredient for particular dishes of Mediterranean and Asian cuisine, and there are also traditional baked foods from England, Scandinavia and Balkan countries that call for its use. Saffron is receiving renewed interest, worldwide, for its medicinal properties.

The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) belongs to the Iridaceae family of flowers, which also includes irises, and it is a close relative of freesias and gladioli. The saffron crocus is a perennial plant that grows from a rounded bulb (or corm). Purple flowers appear in autumn and erect grass-like leaves emerge just before, with or after the flowers.

The saffron spice is the stigma of the flowers (the red filaments or style, that form the female reproductive parts) of the Crocus. At harvest, the whole flower is removed from the plant and later, the stigma is separated from the flower and dried. Saffron is generally traded as whole filaments so the consumer can see they are purchasing pure saffron.

Powdered saffron has the ability to be adulterated by other products, especially turmeric, which is of lower quality, and by the yellow stamen (male reproductive parts) of the same flower.

Saffron is regarded as the world’s most valuable spice. About 15–20 flowers are needed to produce 100 milligrams of saffron filaments, which, if high quality, is the quantity required to colour and flavour a dish for 4–8 people.

  • About 250,000 flowers are needed for 1 kg of saffron
  • About 5,000kg of crocus bulbs are needed per hectare
  • 1 stigma of saffron weights about 2 mg and each flower has 3 stigmata
  • Iran is the biggest saffron producer in the world.

Saffron was first recorded in Greece from a wild plant originating from Crete and the spice of this form (Crocus sativa) became entrenched in cuisine and cultures across the globe

  • Australia produces about 10kg of pure saffron annually, and imports over 3,000kg (which is a mixture of pure and blended saffron) as 2012 statistics.

The spice saffron is composed of the red-orange filaments of the dried tripartite stigmas from the flowers of Crocus sativus L., a perennial herb of the family Iridaceae. It is highly valued as a culinary spice for its flavouring and colouring properties(1), and for its medicinal use in both traditional treatments(7) and for a range of potential new clinical and pharmaceutical uses.

Saffron’s aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Persian,[67]Indian, European, and Arab cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Saffron is used in dishes ranging from the jewelled rice and khoresh of Iran,[68][69] the Milanese risotto of Italy, the paella of Spain, the bouillabaisse of France, to the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia. One of the most esteemed use for saffron is in the preparation of the Golden Ham, a precious dry-cured ham made with saffron from San Gimignano. Common saffron substitutes include safflower(Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” or “açafrão”), annatto, and turmeric (Curcuma longa).

Saffron has a long history of use in traditional medicine.[70][71] Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India, and in perfumery.[72] It is used for religious purposes in India.[73]

On average it requires 150-250,000 plants to produce 1 kg of saffron at a value of approximately A$18 000(1;6;18) making it the worlds most valuable spice. 

The odourless, colourless and water soluble picricrocin, itself a glycoside, has been generally regarded as the main taste component, responsible for the bitter flavour of saffron(24;26). While the compound is certainly bitter and would contribute significantly to the taste, Carmona and Alonso(27) rightly highlight the lack of scientific evidence directly correlating picricrocin concentrations with degree of saffron bitterness and that significant levels of other compounds such as flavonoids would also contribute to this taste.

The quality of saffron is primarily dependent on the actual and relative concentrations of these main 3 main secondary metabolites and these levels are determined by a combination of cultivation/harvesting practises and postharvest treatment(32). The crocin and picricrocin levels peak in the flowers at full bloom and so assuming that the flowers are harvested then, the main determinant of saffron quality is the drying process where picricrocin is hydrolysed to form safranal. The conditions of this drying process including; the temperature, rate of drying, final moisture content and physical air flow characteristics, are all critical to the level of safranal produced and retained in the stigmas as well as any concurrent loss of the colour compounds (crocins) that may occur due to enzymatic or thermal hydrolysis(29;32-34).

The production of saffron from Crocus flowers utilises < 5% of the dry wt of the flowers picked. The propagation of Crocus corms is also far in excess of what is required for crop expansion and renewal even with expansion of the local industry(6). Any new secondary products from the saffron crop, if saleable, would allow value adding and thus provide further competitive advantage for local growers.

Jonathan Stone is Professor of Neurobiology at Sydney University, where saffron has been used in trials of people suffering from age-related macular degeneration. Results from here and Italy indicate patients given daily doses of 20 mg of saffron reported at least partial restoration of vision.

For many years, Nicky Noonan and her husband Terry have been growing and harvesting saffron on their small property in Tasmania. The Noonans were the first to successfully grow saffron commercially in Australia, their first harvest a mere post pack of stigmas.

Nutritional value per 1 tbsp (2.1 g)
Energy27 kJ (6.5 kcal)
1.37 g
Dietary fibre0.10 g
0.12 g
Saturated0.03 g
Trans0.00 g
Monounsaturated0.01 g
Polyunsaturated0.04 g
0.24 g
Vitamin A11 IU
Thiamine (B1)
0 mg
Riboflavin (B2)
0.01 mg
Niacin (B3)
0.03 mg
Vitamin B6
0.02 mg
Folate (B9)
2 μg
Vitamin B12
0 μg
Vitamin C
1.7 mg
Vitamin D
0 μg
Vitamin D
0 IU
2 mg
0.01 mg
0.23 mg
6 mg
0.6 mg
5 mg
36 mg
0.1 μg
3 mg
0.02 mg
Other constituentsQuantity
Water0.25 g