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The Sunshine Spice

Gold is a metal that we Indians know about all too well.

But have you ever heard of Red Gold?

It's probably not what you think. It's actually a spice! Ever heard of saffron, or as we say in Hindi, Kesar?

Saffron, which is yellow-orange in color and has a sweet smell, is one of the most expensive yet one of the most versatile spices you will come across.

This spice comes from the flowers of a herbaceous plant called Crocus. There are around 80 species in the Crocus genus, and saffron specifically comes from the dried red stigmas of Crocus sativus, commonly referred to as Saffron Crocus.

It is not clear where saffron originated from. It is said to have been used first in Iran, but it is likely its place of birth is in Greece or Mesopotamia. In India, the "Lacha" and "Mogra", grown in Kashmir, are the most difficult to get. A certificate was issued by the Union Government for the geographical identification of the saffron that is grown there.

Many of us may know about saffron's uses in food and in fragrance. But did you know that it is also consumed in the form of medicine? All one needs to do is consume it in the right form and in cautious amounts to increase the efficiency of their bodies and brains.

Let's look at a few health benefits of saffron:

  • Due to its richness in various plant compounds, it is a powerful antioxidant, which protects one's cells from oxidative stress and free radicals.

  • Improving moods and reducing symptoms of depression: Due to the spice's ability to uplift one's mood, it is also called the "sunshine spice". Studies have also supported this hypothesis, stating that it is more effective than even placebos in treating mild-moderate depression.

  • While more research would be needed to confirm this property, it's possible that saffron's antioxidant properties would enable it to kill cancer cells in various parts of the body, including skin, breast, lungs, and prostate.

  • PMS symptoms, which include headaches, pain, cravings, and irritability, can be treated with the help of saffron. Studies have shown that eating, or even smelling, can help reduce the symptoms.

  • May possess properties of an aphrodisiac—This means saffron may be able to boost people's libido. Studies have shown that it's beneficial to women as well as men, even showing effectiveness among people on antidepressants.

  • Help in reducing appetite: One of the biggest problems most of us come across when trying to lose weight is snacking. Saffron can help curb these urges, simultaneously helping you lose weight.

  • Other benefits: In addition to all the properties mentioned above, saffron is also said to aid in lowering blood cholesterol as well as blood sugar levels. It might also help with the cognitive functioning of those suffering from Alzheimer's, as well as improve the eyesight of those who suffer from AMD, or Age-related Macular Degeneration.

Apart from the medical benefits that we have just seen, saffron is also useful in the kitchen. In addition to taste and aroma, saffron also helps beautify dishes, which can be done by garnishing the dish with saffron strands. If you want to incorporate the taste of the spice instead, a powdered form is usually more effective.

Let's look at a few tips that will help you avail the benefits in the best possible manner.

  • As we have mentioned, powdered saffron can be more effective than threads. Instead of buying it from the store, you can make this powder at home! To do this, you simply need to grind the threads. It can be done with a pestle and a mortar. If it's getting too challenging, you can just add a bit of sugar, which will make it easier and won't have any effect on the outcome.

  • Saffron can also be consumed in its liquid form. This can be done by adding boiling or warm water (3-5 teaspoons) to saffron (powdered) and letting it simmer for around 10 minutes. It can be stored for a couple of weeks and can be used as and when it's needed. Instead of water, even vinegar, milk, and wine can be used.

  • Saffron can also be consumed with milk. You just need to add a pinch of the spice and sugar (around 2 teaspoons) to boiled milk (1 cup). This can be consumed regularly to see its effectiveness.

How much saffron can be consumed at a time?

Only 30 mg is required to be consumed to reap the maximum possible benefits. More than 5g of saffron can have toxic outcomes, which will include diarrhoea, vomiting, dizziness, and nausea (if it's mildly toxic), but can also lead to bleeding and a reduced platelet count if the dose of toxicity is high. It needs to be consumed safely.

Pregnant women need to be more cautious. The upper limit for saffron consumption has been fixed at 5g. Overconsumption of the spice can lead to contractions and, in the worst-case scenario, miscarriage. Enough information is not available for safety regarding breastfeeding, and thus it's advisable to be safe and avoid it altogether. Doctors must be consulted if you have a medical condition.

So why exactly is red gold so valuable?

Due to the presence of over 100 active phytochemicals and compounds in the spice (which includes crocin, safranal, crocetin, and picrocrocin), the spice has properties that can, in an almost magical way, benefit both the mind as well as the body.

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