Saffron is one of the world’s most beloved spices. Yes, it’s expensive, but a little bit goes a long way to add a deep, earthy flavor to food. You’ve likely tasted it in real-deal paella or tahdig (a crispy Persian rice dish), and some restaurants are using it to flavor Martinis. It’s also one of the main ingredients in Fernet-Branca. (According to VinePair, Fratelli Branca is one of the biggest buyers of saffron in the world.) Saffron’s flavor benefits alone make it worth the hefty price tag, but it’s also very good for your brain health and mood, making it one of the most valuable spices on the rack.
Saffron Is Good for Long-Term Brain Health
“Saffron is made up of four active ingredients: crocin, crocetin, safranal and picrocrocin,” said registered dietitian and nutritionist Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN in an article for Well + Good. Crocin, crocetin and safranal are antioxidants that may improve memory, so saffron is even used as a prescription to treat mild and moderate cases of Alzheimer’s.
“Some small studies found that saffron extract improved cognitive function in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s,” says registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD in an article for Cleveland Clinic. She said those antioxidants can also help protect the brain from damage, and Feller touts its anti-inflammatory properties as well. You’re probably aware that inflammation is bad — it can be the root of everything from cancer to arthritis to digestive issues. And remember that 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so we’ll take all the anti-inflammatory help we can get; delicious saffron is just one wonderful way to reap those benefits.
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It Can Boost Your Mood, Too
Probably the biggest and best benefit of saffron is its mood-boosting abilities. “Specifically, it’s beneficial for improving mood in people with mild to moderate depression,” registered dietitian nutritionist Gaby Vaca-Flores, RDN told Well + Good. A 2013 meta review showed that adults who used saffron had reduced depression symptoms when compared to the placebo group. According to Czerwony, more studies need to be done to determine the long-term outcomes of using saffron as an antidepressant, but there’s certainly no harm in cooking with it more — it might just make you feel better.
In a few small studies, saffron also improved symptoms related to PMS-related depression, including anxiety, irritability and mood swings.
How to Use It
First of all, make sure you’re buying real saffron. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. According to Better Homes & Gardens, saffron should cost at least $10 for one gram and have a “floral, honeyed aroma.” We love Rumi and Diaspora Co.
As for cooking with saffron, the spice will open your kitchen to new cuisines and techniques. Recipes from My Persian Kitchen is one of my favorite cookbooks where you’ll find saffron in recipes for everything from cookies to a beef and yellow split pea stew. Persiana Everyday and Sofreh: A Contemporary Approach to Classic Persian Cuisine are also excellent Persian cookbooks. It’s also used quite a bit in Himalayan cooking, and the saffron chicken with eggplant and tomatoes from Romy Gill’s On the Himalayan Trail (one of our favorite cookbooks of last year) is one of the most delicious dishes you’ll ever make.
So there you have it. Saffron isn’t just delicious, but its health benefits are pretty undeniable, too.