Saffron and Cancer – Miracle or Hype?

Saffron as a cure for cancer. It’s all over the Internet these days. Where do these claims originate? And, are they true?

Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus . It’s a lovely flower that blooms quite frequently on lawns and other grassy areas here in the Northeast. The spice is actually the stigma of the flower. And, because there are only a few stigmas per flower, and because they have to be collected by hand, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.

As with many other flowers, saffron has a complex chemistry. It contains over 150 chemicals, including antioxidant carotenoids, such as zeaxanthin, lycopene, and beta-carotenes. When the plant is dried, Picrocrocin splits into a sugar molecule and a molecule of safranal . Safranal is the oil which gives saffron its distinctive aroma. The bottom line is that saffron does contain small amounts of antioxidants and other chemicals.

But can saffron help against cancer? Well, it depends. In laboratory studies using cancer cells, extracts from saffron was effective against lung cancer cells in vitro . But, we must emphasize that this was done in a lab with cells, not animals, and certainly not humans.

What animal studies we do have , while promising, are naturally somewhat limited in their scope. Further, it is very difficult to take cancer studies in animals and predict what will happen in humans.

Similar studies have demonstrated that saffron extracts have very strong antioxidant properties.

So what does this all mean?

  • We don’t know if extracts are effective in humans
  • We don’t know what specific chemicals are the ones that might work against cancer cells
  • We don’t know what the dose might be for cancer or anything else
  • We don’t know what kinds of cancers might respond to a chemical extracted from saffron…

Get the picture? The fact is that there is a lot we simply don’t know about saffron and its possible effects on human cancers.

Our advice is to stick with seasoning your rice with your saffron. Even making tea with saffron will likely cause some of these beneficial chemicals to break down in the heat. And, be very careful with what you read and consume!