Hispanic Heritage Month: The health benefits of traditional saffron

Hispanic cooking is known for its use of saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron flower. Known for its strong flavor…

The bright yellow hue of saffron adds color and a sweet flavor to many Hispanic dishes. (Shutterstock)

Hispanic cooking is known for its use of saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron flower. Known for its strong flavor and habit of turning food it is used in yellow, saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, primarily because it can take 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce a single pound of saffron spice.

But saffron is a staple in Spanish-style and Indian cooking, and like it, love it, or hate it, it has the potential for some impressive health benefits.

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According to the NYU Langone Medical Center, saffron has traditionally been used since ancient times for strengthening digestion, relieving coughs, smoothing menstruation, relaxing muscle spasms, improving mood, and calming anxiety. Modern science, however, best supports the spice’s use for treatment of depression.

“According to five preliminary double-blind studies, use of saffron at 30 mg daily is more effective than placebo and equally effective as standard treatment for major depression,” states the Center. ” However, all these studies were small and preliminary, and were performed by a single research group in Iran. Larger studies and independent confirmation will be necessary to determine whether this expensive herb is truly effective for depression.”

The Bastyr Center for Natural Health elaborates on the research findings, explaining crocin and safranal are believed to be the active components of saffron responsible for depression relief.

One study compared the effects of saffron with fluoxetine, a common antidepressant, on the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. The final data revealed both the saffron and fluoxetine treatments resulted in significant improvements in depressive symptoms, with no difference in the amount of improvement between the two groups.

In addition to depression, some research indicates saffron may be used alleviate female sexual dysfunction. A study published in the Natural Medicine Journal found: “At the end of the 4th week, the women in the saffron group had experienced significantly more improvements in their total Female Sexual Function Index score, as well as the arousal, lubrication, and pain domains compared to the placebo control group. No significant improvements, however, were evidenced for the desire, satisfaction, and orgasm domains. The authors concluded that because the baseline data of the women were similar between the 2 groups, the beneficial effect observed in the saffron group may be attributed to the aphrodisiac effect of saffron.”

SEE ALSO: Exotic healing herbs

Still not sold on the benefits of saffron in Hispanic cooking?

NYU Langone Medical Center notes that, in addition to the implications for saffron use to treat depression and sexual dysfunction, weaker test-tube and animal studies suggest that saffron and its constituents may help prevent or treat cancer, reduce cholesterol levels , protect against side effects of the drug cisplatin , and enhance mental function .