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Saffron - Natural remedy of the month

 July 2009


Saffron is one of those spices that we have all heard of but in fact very few of us use in our everyday life.

The benefits of saffron have been known for thousands of years - its first documentation is in the 7th century BC when it started being used in the middle east as a food seasoning, perfume, hair and clothes dye and as a medicinal herb.

One of the problems in saffron use is its cost – saffron spice has always been one of the most expensive spices available. This is due to the time and effort needed to produce saffron.

The saffron crocus (or crocus sativus) is a lovely little purple flower. Each flower has just three stigmas and it is these reddy orange stigmas that are used to make saffron spice. Each crocus is hand picked, dried and then the stigmas are removed by hand. A vast number of saffron crocuses are needed to yield just one ounce of saffron spice.

So is all this effort worth it? Yes, because not only can saffron add a wonderful flavour and colour to recipes (its uses are widespread from Spanish paella and French soup to Italian risotto, Indian food, stews, desserts and even in coffee and tea) but it also has a number of health properties.

In Asia, saffron has been used for a long time in medicine – to treat conditions such as asthma, coughs, alcoholism, acne and skin diseases plus problems with the liver, kidney and to treat urinary infections.

More recently here in the west, saffron spice is attracting increasing recognition for its potential to help lower the level of blood cholesterol and to treat kidney disorders. Compounds within saffron are said to promote the anti-viral and anti-bacterial ability of the body.

However, the most exciting news about saffron is the recent discovery that saffron can protect against some of the most common forms of blindness. Scientists have found that eating saffron regularly can help to make the delicate cells in the eye needed for vision more resilient against disease. They found that saffron had a beneficial effect in humans suffering from age-related macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness in old age.

Experiments in animals have also revealed that saffron can help protect the eye from damage caused by bright sunlight and also from the slow progress of genetic diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa.

Scientists at the University of L’Aquila in Italy and Sydney University in Australia are now conducting clinical trials on human patients with age-related macular degeneration. They say saffron appears to block cell death and has strong antioxidant properties. It also appears to affect genes which regulate the fatty acid content of the cell membrane and this makes the vision cells tougher and more resilient.

It is good to know that such a tasty and colourful spice may have so many additional benefits.

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