It is one of the world's most valuable spices. Patiently
collected flower by flower, the deep red stamens of the saffron
crocus can fetch up to Pounds 500 per pound, writes Anastasia
But now there is more reason than ever to covet it. A study at
Sydney University and the University of L'Aquila in Italy has found
that when eaten, saffron may protect eyes from UV damage and slow
the progress of diseases such as macular degeneration, a leading
cause of blindness.
In macular degeneration, the cells in the retina at the back of
the eye, which are responsible for clear vision, begin to die. But
when patients with macular degeneration taking part in the study
began eating a diet containing saffron, these cells began to
recover. Professor Silvia Bisti, who led the research, says:
'Saffron appears to affect genes that regulate the fatty-acid
content of the cell membrane, and this makes the vision cells
tougher and more resilient.' The 25 participants in the study took
saffron supplements or a placebo every day for three months. All
those who took the saffron pill experienced improved vision, but the
improvements disappeared when they stopped taking it.
Monique Simmonds, who investigates medicinal properties of plants
at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, explains: 'The unique compounds
found naturally in saffron that we believe may have medicinal value
include crocin and safranal. They belong to a family called
carotenoids, which includes betacarotene [a type of Vitamin A].
Carotenoids give plants such as carrots or red peppers their colour.
'Studies show that these compounds play key roles in preserving
eyesight, protecting against cancer and preventing Alzheimer's.'
Added to pilau rice, risotto and dishes such as paella, saffron
threads give a slightly bitter taste as well as a yellow colour. To
replicate the Italian study, 20mg of neat saffron - about 16 threads
- would need to be eaten daily.
A study of its anti-cancer properties at the National Institute
of Paediatrics in New Mexico found that crocin and safranal actively
prevent cancer cells from dividing. 'Several studies have confirmed
anti-tumour properties of saffron,' says Fikrat Abdullaev, who
conducted the study. 'Research has found that saffron boosts
immunity by helping white blood cells to mature, as well as
increasing levels of enzymes that help the body break down toxins.'
Research published in the British Journal Of Gynaecology found that
saffron eased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. Fifty women with
PMS received either 30mg of saffron twice a day or placebo capsules.
Those taking the saffron reported marked improvements in symptoms
such as depression, irritability and mood swings.
However, 1g of saffron is expensive - around Pounds 6. It is not
yet available in supplement form and the quality of culinary saffron
can vary hugely.