May 2022

Saffron: Adulteration Concerns for the Most Expensive Spice in the World

The global saffron market was estimated to be around $480 million in 2018. Wholesale and retail prices range from $500 to $5,000 per pound. It’s sourced from the Crocus sativa plant, but the only part that is used as saffron is the stigma - a tiny portion of the pollen-collecting strands found inside of the flower. This is the main reason it's so expensive. Not only is it difficult to plant, harvest, and process, but demand remains high for a variety of reasons – including cosmetic, culinary, and medicinal uses. Because of its high cost, there’s been a long-standing incentive for producers to mix saffron with other ingredients in order to cheaply increase bulk weight. Here’s what you should know from a recent American Botanical Council (ABC) report.

Saffron is orange to red, and when used in cooking it adds a golden color to food. Common adulterants found in saffron powder include turmeric powder and paprika – these spices are less expensive and increase weight without changing the product’s color. Gardenia is also often used because it produces the same chemical compounds as saffron. Whole saffron stigmas are also available for purchase, but these may be mixed with other plant parts. The stigmas are attached to another part of the plant called the style. The style doesn’t offer any benefits, but if left attached to the stigma it can increase product weight by 50%. Saffron stigmas may also be mixed with beetroot-dyed filaments from corn, pomegranate, and safflower.

Consumers should seek out brands that comply with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations and that confirm the saffron used in their products is pure. Patients should also be encouraged to choose products that have been clinically studied. And while it’s not as good as lab-testing, a simple spot test at home can check for the presence of dyes. After sprinkling a small saffron sample on water, if a clear yellow color quickly forms, it’s likely saffron. But if there’s no color or if a reddish color forms, the product is likely adulterated. 

In addition to saffron, many other spice products are commonly tampered with. Watch out for turmeric and chili powder, as these products have had even more reported cases of fraud than saffron in the past decade. Ginkgo also has a history of being bulked up with cheaper ingredients such as rutin and quercetin.

Check out our recently updated saffron monograph to learn about its potential health benefits, and if there are any other safety concerns.

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