It’s one of the world’s most precious spices. And it just got a little more precious.
Saffron, the beautiful thread, or stigma, of the crocus flower, has now been discovered to cure macular degeneration.
By weight, saffron is the most expensive spice on the planet. Wholesale and retail prices in the US range from $500 to $5,000 per pound. Truly an expensive spice!
Why is saffron so expensive? It’s not because it’s particularly delicious, although it is. All kinds of wonderful dishes are made using it, one of my favorite being Spanish Paella. I remember once having an opportunity to entertain a Catholic priest who was born and raised in Spain, and I found out that one of his favorite dishes was paella (recipe here). So I gathered each ingredient, bought saffron for the very first time and remembered being surprised at its cost. But there is good reason for it.
It’s the cultivation process that makes saffron so expensive. It takes approximately one acre of purple saffron crocuses, the flower from which saffron threads are harvested, to yield only one pound of saffron. This is because each crocus flower only produces 3 threads of saffron and has to be plucked out of each flower by hand. And it takes about 14,000 threads (the dried stigmas of the crocus flower) to equal one ounce of saffron! So it’s easy to see how labor intensive the harvesting process is. Saffron is grown in dry, limestone ground around the world–in France, Italy, Greece, Iran, India, and even Pennsylvania—but fully 70% of the world’s supply comes from Spain.
To top that off, the crocus saffron only blooms for 3 weeks out of the year, so in the Fall when they bloom, workers often spend up to 19 hours a day harvesting and processing the saffron threads. These crocus saffron are almost exclusively grown on small family farms as a side crop and thus the cultivation of saffron has remained unchanged for thousands of years. Small bulb-like structures called corms are dug, divided, and replanted every few years. In the fall they bloom and the flowers are harvested. A labor intensive endeavor, when the saffron blooms (usually for 3 weeks) all the family’s attention goes to harvesting and processing.
Saffron can be sold as saffron threads, or as a ground saffron powder, but culinary experts prefer the threads, as the flavor is typically stronger.
But back to the new discovery. An Australian clinical trial involving 25 participants and conducted by Sydney University Professor of Neurology Jonathan Stone has shown astounding results. Instead of depriving a placebo group from a product that could do something for their ailment, the study switched placebo subjects with saffron subjects half-way through the trial unbeknownst to all involved. The daily dosage was 20 mg of saffron.
The six month long study allowed each side of the 25 double blind subjects to have three months of improved vision with three months of impaired vision. All 25 were tested for neuron electrical conductivity in the macula and retina, and 23 showed significant improvement. Those 23 also reported they could see much better. Those are terrific results!
Visual improvement began after only two weeks on saffron. When the saffron group was put onto placebos, they complained that their improved eyesight had begun diminishing again. Conversely, those on placebos for the first half of the trial began seeing better after three months of no improvement.
So is it worth it? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. What price can you put on the gift of sight?