Whether you crave the taste and nutrition of saffron rice or take supplements to reap some of saffron's reputed health benefits, too much of a good thing could make you sick. However, saffron is generally safe when taken as directed.
Understand Saffron's Benefits
Saffron has long been cultivated for use as a spice. Known formally as Crocus sativus, the flower's stigma delivers the metallic honey-like taste used in culinary dishes that range from seafood and poultry to pastas and desserts, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Saffron has also been used medicinally throughout history. This complex spice contains 150 volatile and nonvolatile chemical compounds, with minimal saffron side effects, according to a February 2017 review of studies published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences.
Safranal, classified as a volatile compound, delivers the main fragrance of saffron, while the nonvolatile ingredients crocetin and picrocrocin are responsible for its bitter taste. Crocin is the compound that gives saffron its signature yellow color.
Read more: How Often Should You Replace Your Spices?
Saffron's many components also contribute to its modern medical uses. It's been studied for use as an anti-convulsive, an anti-depressant, an anti-hypertensive, an anti-tremor agent and a neurological protective, according to the 2017 review in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Science.
A September 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that saffron helped adults with depressive symptoms when taken at a dosage of 14 milligrams, twice daily. A February 2019 study published in Respiratory Research found that saffron shows promise as a supplement for treating asthma and allergies.
Avoid Saffron Dangers
The 2017 review in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences found that saffron dangers are rare. Genuine saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, costing an average of about $3,000 to $9,000 per pound, according to the University of Vermont Entomology Research Laboratory.
That's because it takes about 4,000 blooms to make 1 ounce of saffron, and all production is done by hand. This fact alone makes it very unlikely you'd ever consume enough saffron to see toxic effects.
The 2017 review of studies published in the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences found that saffron extract is safe in pharmacological doses of 200 or 400 milligrams. However, in high doses, it can affect a developing fetus and possibly increases miscarriage risk in pregnant women.
Saffron's side effects are few, according to the review. When compared to a placebo, saffron's side effects are mainly limited to an increase in appetite and an increase in anxiety. Saffron diarrhea was not tracked in the study; however, the review found that there was no significant difference in constipation between participants receiving saffron and those receiving a placebo or other study medications.
Saffron is, however, toxic to cancer cells. The review cited studies that showed its promise as a cancer inhibitor in gastric cancer, skin cancer and malignant cells, making it one of the best foods to eat if you have cancer.
Beware of Look-Alike Saffron Dangers
Genuine saffron is scientifically a member of the crocus family of flowers, characterized by purple flowers, with bright red stamen and stigma inside the bloom. Other plants also go by the name of saffron, but are unrelated. Some of these plants can cause toxicity.
The meadow saffron is also known as the autumn crocus. Even though it looks similar to the saffron flower, with its lavender petals and yellow stamen and stigma, it is neither a saffron flower nor a crocus. Its scientific name is Colchicum autumnale, and it is a member of the lily family, whereas Crocus sativus is a member of the iris family, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
All parts of meadow saffron are toxic, according to the University of Colorado. Ingesting it can cause severe hemorrhagic diarrhea, vomiting, severe salivation and abdominal pain.
Look-alike saffron dangers include cardiac symptoms, kidney and liver failure, congenital disabilities and collapsing. See a doctor immediately if you've ingested any part of meadow saffron.
Mexican saffron originates from the safflower, Carthamus tinctorius. It is used in cooking to replicate the yellow color of saffron at a minimal cost.
Although safflower has health benefits of its own, overconsumption of this flower can lead to a reduction in male fertility. It can also negatively affect fetal development, according to an April 2019 review of studies published in the Electronic Physician.
Avoid Toxicity With True Saffron
With so many different spices, plants and supplements sold under the name "saffron," how can you be sure you're getting the real deal and not something that's going to end up poisoning you if you eat too much? Read labeling on bottles of spices and supplements to ensure that you're getting Crocus sativus_,_ or genuine saffron, and not anything else.
If you love the distinct taste of saffron and have a green thumb, you can grow your own indoors or outside, with other edible flowers, in many climates throughout the United States. It's crucial to plant and harvest the correct species, however, as true saffron bears a similarity to the toxic meadow saffron. Only Crocus sativus corms will produce the red stigma from which you can derive real saffron.
Get your corms from a certified nursery. Be very careful when getting corms from a friend, farmer's market or other noncertified source.
Time of harvest: Unlike other crocus species, which bloom in the spring, actual saffron flowers in the autumn, according to the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development. The toxic meadow saffron also blooms in the autumn and looks very similar, so additional positive identification is necessary.
Flower: Both Colchicum autumnale and true saffron, Crocus sativus, have purple flowers with red stamens. However, the saffron flower is a true crocus with three stamens and a single pistil, topped by the stigma from which the spice originates, according to the University of Colorado.
Colchium flowers, in contrast, have three pistils and six stamens. All parts of the flower are poisonous, and any person or animal ingesting any part of the plant should receive immediate medical care.
Mexican saffron, or safflower, is not easily confused in the garden with the real saffron. It has a yellow, thistle-like flower. Its similarity to the true spice is only revealed when it's used for cooking.
- Mayo Clinic: "Guide to Herbs and Spices: Saffron"
- Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Science: "Toxicology Effects of Saffron and Its Constituents"
- Journal of Psychopharmacology: "Efficacy of a Standardized Saffron Extract as an Add-on to Antidepressant Medication for the Treatment of Persistent Depressive Symptoms in Adults"
- Respiratory Research: "An Evaluation of the Effects of Saffron Supplementation on the Asthma Clinical Symptoms and Asthma Severity in Patients With Mild and Moderate Persistent Allergic Asthma: A Double-Blind, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial"
- Electronic Physician: "Medical Uses of Carthamus tinctorius L. (Safflower): A Comprehensive Review From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine"
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: "Plant Profile for Colchicum autumnale L.: Autumn Crocus"
- North American Center for Saffron Research and Development: "Saffron Production: Life Cycle of Saffron (Crocus sativus)"
- University of Vermont Entomology Research Laboratory: "Saffron: A Golden Opportunity for Crop Diversification"
- USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: "Plant Profile for Crocus sativus L."
- Colorado State University: "Guide to Poisonous Plants: Autumn Crocus, Meadow Saffron"