If you don’t believe in flower power, please meet saffron. The sunset-colored spice comes from inside the crocus sativus flower, a bright purple blossom found in Iran, India, Greece, Turkey, and the larger Middle East. Saffron has a special cultural significance in Persian culture, where it’s often called “red gold” and harvested for holiday recipes, wellness teas, and fabric dyes—though because saffron is so expensive, its deep red pigment is often seen as a color of royalty.
Saffron is also used as a medicinal plant in Indian and Pakistani ayurvedic rituals, and in many Persian and Arab communities, and there’s science to back up its benefits. The National Institute of Health reports “saffron has four notable antioxidants” that help protect skin from pollution and free radicals, while its deep red color is caused by a natural chemical called a “carotenoid pigment” that helps protect brain cells and joints from inflammation.
Here’s what saffron can do for your body, your skin, and the environment.
SAFFRON ON THE PLANET
Saffron is found in rocky terrain along the Middle East and Mediterranean, though it can also thrive in parts of North America and even New Zealand. Because it lives in harsh climates, saffron has developed a type of hibernation called “dormancy” that keeps it alive while pausing any new blooms until conditions improve. A variety of insects and herbivores depend on saffron for food, including pollinators like bees and field mice. In recent years, saffron has been pinpointed by scientists and ecologists as a possible natural erosion barrier in rocky soil. In a 2008 paper, Italian scientists and biochemists called saffron “an alternative crop for sustainable agricultural systems” because of its low carbon footprint during harvest season.
SAFFRON ON THE BODY
Saffron is a revered ingredient in ayurvedic skin care because of its potent antioxidant load. Basically, saffron can neutralize environmental damage—UV rays, particles from pollution, bad stuff that buries into your pores—which helps your body recover more easily, and helps your skin look fresher, younger, and more rested. Saffron also has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it can help reduce redness, irritation, and puffiness. A 2018 peer-reviewed lab study from the Shanghai 9th People’s Hospital found that saffron “protects against ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which are responsible for premature skin aging.” A separate study from the same hospital found that saffron has similar defensive properties against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which also—all together now—reduces signs of aging!
SAFFRON IN THE BODY
Saffron isn’t just called “the sunshine spice” because it’s brightly colored. The botanical ingredient has also been found in small Iranian studies to have mood-boosting and relaxing properties, thanks to its “neuroprotective potency.” (That’s a highly scientific way of explaining that because saffron’s chemical makeup helps protect brain cells from oxidation and distress, it may also help protect mood stability and positive mental outlook, which is pretty amazing.) Saffron also boasts nutritional benefits when ingested, because lab studies have documented its ability to lower blood sugar, fight cancer-prone cells, and help moderate cholesterol and heart health. Thus far, these studies have occurred in lab tests, not human trials, but since saffron is super-easy to add into smoothies, teas, salads, and yogurt, many health professionals and nutritionists believe it’s worth adding to your diet. Best case, you get every health benefit (and also…uh… its clinical proof as an aphrodisiac, according to a peer-reviewed study at the University of Mashad in Iran). Worst case? You’ve mindfully added something that tastes fantastic into your diet.