Saffron: History, Origin, Health Benefits and Warnings

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Saffron was known in the past as Zarparan, meaning a flower whose leaves look like or "gold strung” (implying either the golden stamens of the flower or the golden color it creates when used as flavor). It dates back to 3500 years ago. Saffron has long been the most expensive spice in the world, although some doubts remain about its origin, but it is believed that saffron originated in Western Afghanistan (Herat Province) or Eastern Iran (Khurasan Razavi Province), yet Greece and Mesopotamia are possible areas of origin of this plant.

There is also a wild species of this plant that has its roots in Central Asia. The aroma and taste of saffron is related to the chemicals produced in this plant, and this plant has pigments inside it that transfer its golden yellow color to the dishes. The history of this plant dates back to the seventh century BC.


Saffron plays an important role in different eras and countries. In Greece, this plant has a long history and dates back to the pre-Bronze Age. In the past, saffron flowers were picked and used as an herbal medicine. The ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean collected saffron around the coastal city and due to its high quality was used in the production of perfumes and medicines. It was also used to treat gastrointestinal and kidney diseases of Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations.


Saffron-based pigments are found in our prehistoric paintings, which are used to depict animals in a 50,000-year-old cave in present-day Iraq. Later, the Sumerians used saffron as a substance in their medicines and magic potions. However, the Sumerians did not actively cultivate saffron. Instead, they decided to collect only the flowers of this plant. Because they felt that only divine intervention could activate the medicinal properties of saffron. Such a thing, in fact, shows evidence that saffron is the prelude to long-distance trade before reaching the culture of the Minoan palace of Crete, which peaked in the second millennium BC. Saffron was also celebrated as a sweet spice more than three thousand years ago within Judaism religion.



Saffron Uses (Applications of saffron)

This plant was used by doctors and physicians in the treatment of gastric bleeding and urinary tract infections. Saffron was also used as a dye for royal clothes, in public places such as courts and halls, etc. Saffron was used as a perfume. In ancient Iran and Afghanistan, especially in the cities of Isfahan and Herat, for the treatment of digestive system disorders, they drank saffron tea. Also in this vast region, saffron has been found in the fabric of royal carpets and shrouds. Many studies show that saffron was popularized by the Persian rulers in India. During the Achaemenid period, Cyrus the Great believed that saffron heals wounds.


The plant was also used in Asian forests by Alexander the Great and his soldiers. Alexander himself bathed in hot water by mixing saffron. This plant was also imported to China by the Mongols and saffron is mentioned in Chinese medical books. In Europe, the source and source of cultivation was probably in Spain, this product was and is so valuable that pirates in the past refused to carry gold and carried saffron with them. 


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In France, saffron production was high in the 17th and 18th centuries, but over time due to cold and fungal problems, the production of this plant decreased and only a small number of royal families used it.


After the industrialization, in some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the production of saffron decreased and these countries turned to the production of other products such as chocolate, vanilla, etc. But in some countries, because this product has a long history, such as France and Spain, its production remained. Almost all saffron grows in a belt from Spain in the west to Kashmir in the east. Except for Antarctica, other continents produce smaller quantities. In 2014, 250 tons (250,000 kg) of this valuable plant were produced worldwide.


Azerbaijan and Morocco are reducing production, respectively. In Italy, saffron is produced primarily in southern Italy, especially in the Abruzzo region, but also grows in significant numbers in Basilicata. Sardinia, Tuscany (especially in San Gimignano). High labor costs and abundant Iranian and Afghani imports have somewhat limited the production of this product in these areas. In Austria, Germany and Switzerland, including the Swedish village of Mund, this plant is cultivated so that its annual production reaches several kilograms.


Saffron can be grown in Australia (mainly Tasmania), Canada, Central Africa, China, Egypt, parts of England, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden (Gotland), Turkey (mostly around Safranbolu), the United States ( California and Pennsylvania). Greece is a saffron producer with a history of 3 centuries of saffron cultivation named Crocus Kuzanis, which has been exporting to the United States since 2017.


Saffron in Afghanistan 

Saffron cultivation in Afghanistan increased dramatically in the 21st century (from 2 tons in 2001 to 35 tons in 2020). Afghans farmers, especially women, have started cultivating saffron instead of opium. 


Herat is known as one of the largest saffron producing cities in Afghanistan, which is the major capital of saffron production. Saffron is one of the souvenirs of Herat.


Today, in addition to Herat, saffron is also grown in other parts of Afghanistan, mainly in Balkh, Bamyan, Parwan and recently it is planted and harvested in other provinces such as Takhar, Qunduz, Badakhshan and Faryab. Saffron grows better in cold climates than in the tropics. The colder the region, the higher the quality of its saffron.



Therapeutic and medicinal properties of saffron


Enjoyable and antidepressant saffron tea is also useful for treating kidneys and gastrointestinal tract and has recently been used as an antidepressant in many European laboratories. They have also recently discovered that it is effective in treating infertility


This plant is also used as an ointment and ointment for sensitive and dry skin. Due to the antioxidants properties, this plant is also used to prevent and treat cancer. With many applications in traditional herbal foods, beverages and therapies, in Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas, the bright red filaments of this plant have been considered in cooking, spices and a variety of beverages. The people of ancient Iran believed that saffron could cure stomach aches, plagues and smallpox

Saffron is used in the confectionery and food industries due to its special taste, color and smell.

Saffron Use

Beware of Fake Saffron  

Despite efforts to control quality and standardization, there are so many fake saffron in the global and local markets, unfortunately so many merchants sell fake saffron. Common fraudulent methods include mixing in substances such as beets, pomegranate fibers, silk fibers that are yellow, tasteless and odorless. Other methods include burning saffron fibers with viscous substances such as honey or vegetable oil to increase their weight.

Powdered saffron can be mixed with other ingredients such as turmeric, paprika and other powders that are used as diluents. 

Safflower is a common alternative to saffron and even safflower that is sometimes sold as saffron. The spice is also reportedly counterfeited with corn silk or shredded paper.

It never hurts to remember that you should always buy Saffron from a reputable source. That source can either be a store you trust or an online seller you have vetted, such as Safaroma.



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