Not a spice the average cook keeps in his or her kitchen, saffron is a much sought-after resource used to enhance dishes in many types of cuisine.
For this reason and more, the price of saffron is consistently high.
There are a few compelling reasons for this.
Why Is Saffron So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. Needs Many Stigmas
It takes an excessive number of thread-like stigmas to create saffron.
In fact, one pound of this premium spice requires the use of between 15,000 and 20,000 stigmas.
Stigmas come from a special flower.
Each bloom only produces three of the threads.
The flower that provides stigma must be picked by hand, and this is an extremely time-consuming process.
2. It’s A Slow Growing Crop
The reproduction of saffron is also a process that takes an extraordinary amount of time to complete.
There is a short time frame in which saffron can be harvested.
It only happens in the fall and, even then, only very early in the morning.
The harvesting period for it is limited to two consecutive weeks of early mornings.
3. Saffron Is A Delicate Flower
If saffron is not picked as soon as it blooms, it will wilt before it can be used.
This flower is known for being extremely delicate.
It comes from the Crocus family, a type of flower found in the Arabian Peninsula and the basin of the Mediterranean.
While every flower from this family is delicate, saffron is at the bottom of the list, making it the most delicate of them all.
4. Special Care Has To Be Taken
It is essential that saffron not be exposed to too much sunlight, water, and even cold weather.
This is the only way to prevent them from wilting.
Saffron is grown from a single mother bulb.
That bulb will then split in half, creating a clone of itself.
This is the only way saffron is able to reproduce.
Some spices are produced in large numbers, but when it comes to saffron, it takes one acre of land to grow approximately one pound of the spice.
In comparison, one acre of land is enough to grow 300 pounds of cumin.
For this reason, many farmers prefer to grow spices other than saffron.
5. Workers Take Great Care To Harvest It
The process of harvesting saffron can be brutal for those tasked with doing it.
Picking requires spending a lot of time being bent over, as they are found very low to the ground.
Harvesting saffron is similar to picking strawberries in that it can feel like backbreaking work.
Those making the effort to harvest them have to act as quickly as possible to pick the saffron before it is too late.
They have to take great care to avoid stepping on the flowers in the process of picking them.
It can be easy for workers to hurt themselves or the flowers during the harvesting process.
The vast majority of saffron is harvested throughout Iran.
The workers used are exploited in every possible way, including getting paid a maximum hourly wage of $5.
It isn’t just harvesting the flower that is extremely time-consuming.
The process of producing as little as a single kilogram of saffron involves performing hard manual labor for 40 hours.
However, there are times when the entire kilogram can’t be used, and part of it is disposed of.
This is done to ensure that the saffron is of the highest quality.
In many cases, the only high-quality part of the saffron acceptable for use is its tip.
There are four grades of the saffron that comes out of Iran, which equals 90% of the world’s supply.
Grades progress from lowest to highest, with the lowest being the bunch.
This is the strand of the flower that goes from the base to the tip.
For higher grade saffron, the tips are removed from the strand, leaving nothing but the single red strand.
6. High Demand Leads To Fake Saffron
The highest quality strands are very much in demand throughout the world.
In order to meet this demand, there are those who will create fake saffron and pass it off as real.
It is easy to create strands that look like saffron but aren’t.
The fake version is often made using a variety of materials like horsehair, corn silks, and coconut fibers.
Fake saffron is dyed using the stigmas of the lowest grade and passing them off as stigmas of the highest grade.
Perhaps the biggest case of fake saffron in the world occurred in the United Kingdom in 2019.
The case resulted in a police investigation that lasted for two years.
Spain is also guilty of producing fake saffron.
In 2010, the country was said to have exported 190,000 kilos, despite the fact that only 1,500 of them were real.
According to a farmer’s union operating throughout Spain, only approximately 10% of those who exported saffron exported the real thing.
Artificial saffron has long been a problem in the spice industry.
No other spice has been counterfeited more than saffron has.
Though scientists have tried repeatedly to reproduce saffron in a laboratory, to date their efforts have been unsuccessful.
However, this lack of success does not stop them from continuing to try.
Taking the gene found in saffron, scientists have attempted to add the gene to maize plants, with the intention of creating the protein that makes up saffron.
The resulting product had the same taste as saffron would.
Through this research, scientists have been attempting to create more saffron to be used for medical purposes.
6. Climate Change Is To Blame
One of the biggest reasons saffron is so expensive is climate change.
The spice is produced in Morocco and Greece, in addition to Iran and Spain.
Something all these places have in common is that they experience warm climates and mostly stay dry.
The combination of the ideal temperature and the perfect amount of rainfall per year is difficult to come by in many parts of the world.
Kashmir is among the biggest producers of saffron.
However, changes in the climate in recent years have led many of Kashmir’s farmers to sell their land off to developers who are building houses in their place.
As a result, Kashmir now produces much less saffron than it used to.
The problem became so serious that, from 2017 to 2018, production rates plummeted by close to 70%.
While Kashmir had previously produced 16.5 metric tons, that number decreased to 5.2 within a one-year period.
The majority of farmers in Kashmir harvest saffron.
This is what drives the local economy and causes the prices of saffron to continue rising.
Approximately 80% of its residents make their living as farmers and if they aren’t earning enough from the sales of saffron, everyone pays more to make up for the loss.
More than 16,000 of the families in Kashmir cultivate saffron.
Trade of this spice suffers when there is not enough high quality saffron being produced.
With Iran dominating the international saffron market, Kashmir cultivators are finding themselves losing income rapidly.
Since cultivating saffron is performed by machines in most countries, Kashmir is not producing enough of it to keep up.
Kashmir farmers have found that the way in which this spice is harvested needs to be greatly improved in the future.
7. It’s Made Of Expensive Components
There are three chemicals found in the saffron flower.
Those three chemicals are crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, all of which are expensive in their own right.
However, without these chemicals, saffron wouldn’t have the taste, smell, or color that makes it so desirable to people around the world.
8. There Are Many Health Benefits Of Saffron
While saffron is a spice that makes certain dishes tastier, consuming it also provides many physical and mental health benefits.
In fact, prior to his death in 1037 AD, the Father of Modern Medicine, Avicenna, stated that saffron provides anti-inflammatory benefits, and it can be used as a heart treatment.
This is likely because the chemical properties of saffron prevent the clogging of arteries and blood vessels.
Throughout the 14th century, saffron was believed to act as a Black Death remedy.
This made it very valuable in the eyes of those living during this time period.
In addition, it has chemical properties that have been found to not only cut down on the likelihood of suffering from stress, but also being inflicted with certain types of cancer cells, including cervix, breast, prostate, colon, and skin cancers.
There are also health benefits for those suffering from diabetes because not only can saffron make the human body more sensitive to insulin, but it can also lower blood sugar levels.
Saffron boasts many minerals, including:
In addition to its minerals, this valuable spice also contains folic acid, niacin, riboflavin vitamin A, and vitamin C.
These are the ingredients that help treat PMS, insomnia, anxiety, and retinal degeneration.
The antioxidants found in saffron help keep your hair healthier and can even prevent it from falling out.
In women especially, it is known to strengthen hair that has become limp or damaged.
Many people drink saffron tea for its health benefits, including skin care.
Using saffron milk, you can make a facial mask that will leave you with glowing skin.
You can also drink saffron milk to treat acne and even marks left by scars.
There are also weight loss benefits to using saffron.
This includes its ability to increase your metabolism while decreasing the number of fat cells in your body.
It is also said to help suppress your appetite.
In fact, studies were done which showed taking saffron made 84% of participants less likely to eat food between meals, and 55% of the participants ate snacks less often after digesting this spice.
In 78% of participants, their craving for sweets decreased.
Saffron has also been linked to cognitive improvements in patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have also shown that it can help treat mild and moderate depression.
It was determined that a 30mg dose of saffron has the same healing powers as three of the most widely used pills to treat depression in patients.
9. It Has Historical Significance
The use of saffron is historically significant.
This is because, while it is primarily used as a spice, it has had other uses as well.
One of the many reasons it is the world’s most expensive spice is that Romans previously used it as a perfume scent.
At that time, the streets of Rome were covered in saffron anytime the Roman Emperor showed up.
Its powder was used in halls, theaters, and courts to create a welcoming aroma that served as a royalty symbol.
This isn’t the only significant role that saffron has played in the history of the world.
Cleopatra was known to add it to her bath water.
The reason was so that she would smell desirable when she was interacting with her suitors.
During the 3rd century, when saffron came to Eastern Asia and China, it became a cultural icon.
The traders of the time were becoming wealthy from the sale of saffron.
In turn, this caused problems for the aristocracy and even led to “The Saffron War,” which lasted for a total of 13 weeks.
As a result of the war, 13th century pirates began attacking ships that were carrying saffron, rather than attacking ships that were carrying gold.
Saffron was also commonly used to create dye for women’s hair as well as the jackets they wore.
However, the Romans eventually discontinued their use of saffron in order to preserve the world’s supply of it.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, saffron made a comeback in Al-Andalus, an Islamic civilization that expanded to Italy, Spain, and France.
During the 14th century, saffron was first used in French cuisine.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, several tons of saffron were being produced.
In early Chinese literature, a higher value was placed on saffron than on gold.
Following the era of the Roman Empire, Spain began to grow large amounts of saffron.
Following the invasion of Spain by the Arabs, saffron was considered an important part of medicine.
In addition to cooking with it, they began to use it to correct an imbalance of chemicals in the human brain.
This is also the first time it was used to treat sexual dysfunction in men.
Saffron also has historical significance in India.
In ancient times, its yellowish color was used in and came to represent noble garments.
It was also used in Persia.
Those who worshipped God would present it to Him as a ceremonial offering.
After a long day of working in the sun, Persians would add it to their water, along with sandalwood, and use it as a body wash to rid themselves of sweat and dirt.
Threads of saffron were also used in the making of both funeral shrouds and royal carpets.
While Alexander the Great was active in the Persian military, the belief is that he bathed in bathrooms infused with saffron in order to help heal the wounds he suffered in battle.
The rulers of Persia were known to use saffron in their gardens and parks, leading to the use of it in India as well.
Here, it was grown so that the people of India could offer saffron to the Buddha.
To this day, residents of India continue to present it to the statue of Bahubali.
It has become a tradition for residents to wash the statue with saffron once every 12 years.
Prehistoric paints made partly of saffron were used in cave art that dates back 50,000 years.
As many as 1,000 years ago, the Hebrew Tanakh recognized it as a spice with a sweet scent to it.
10. It Is Considered A Precious Resource
The high value that is placed on saffron has made it one of the world’s most precious spices.
As of May 2021, one gram of saffron was worth $7 in the U.S.
On average, the U.S. price for one pound of saffron is $5,000.
It is considered to be the country’s most expensive spice.
Depending on where the saffron originates, one pound can be as expensive as $10,000.
Due to the overwhelmingly high value of this spice, which comes from the painstaking harvesting process it requires, an unofficial name for saffron is “Red Gold.”