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Bulletin on Adulteration of Saffron and Saffron Extracts Published by ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program

New document summarizes multifaceted fraud associated with one of the most widely adulterated spice ingredients

AUSTIN, Texas (March 14, 2022) — The ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) has released a Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletin on saffron (Crocus sativus) stigmas and extracts. Each saffron plant produces only one flower with a three-branched stigma emerging from its style. The saffron stigmas are the red-colored, thread-like parts of the female organ of the flower, each weighing only 2-2.5 mg. Traditionally, saffron planting, harvesting, and processing is done by hand. The time-consuming labor required makes it the most expensive spice in the world.

Saffron has a documented history of usage throughout antiquity, mainly as a spice and food ingredient. Besides its culinary applications, saffron has been used for centuries in traditional medicine systems as a remedy for healing wounds, to treat fever and lower back pain, to ease digestive upset, and for its mood-enhancing effects. Modern therapeutic uses of saffron extract, supported by published clinical trials, include the relief of mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety, and stress. There is also growing evidence from clinical trials of saffron extract’s beneficial effects on sleep.

Wholesale and retail saffron prices range from $500 to $5,000 per pound. Due to its high price, there is an incentive for economically motivated adulteration in the saffron industry. Adulterants include red-dyed paper strips, silk fibers, and corn (Zea mays) stigmas dyed in beet (Beta vulgaris) juice, as well as pomegranate (Punica granatum) fruit peel or fibers, safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) and calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers, and various other naturally red-colored plant materials. Some adulterators have also mixed powdered saffron with ground turmeric (Curcuma longa) or paprika (Capsicum annuum) as undisclosed lower-cost bulking agents.

The BAPP saffron bulletin was written by Stefan Gafner, PhD, ABC’s chief science officer and BAPP’s technical director, and four scientists working in the herbal supply industry: Aboli Girme, PhD, Amit Mirgal, PhD, and Lal Hingorani, PhD, from Pharmanza Herbal Pvt. Ltd. (Kaniya, India); and Bhaumik Darji from Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, Indiana). The bulletin summarizes the published data on saffron stigma adulteration, lists the various known adulterants, provides an overview of the market and value networks (supply chains), and discusses macroscopic, microscopic, genetic, and chemical test methods to detect adulteration of saffron stigmas and its extracts. The bulletin was peer reviewed by 20 experts in pharmacognosy (the knowledge of the science of medicinal plants) and botanical ingredient analysis from academia, contract analytical laboratories, and the dietary supplement and food industries in the United States and internationally.

“Saffron is one of the most widely adulterated botanical ingredients worldwide,” commented Gafner. “Some types of adulteration are readily uncovered, even by a non-expert, for example by looking at the color of the liquid when adding saffron to hot water. Other types are more sophisticated and need state-of-the-art analytical methods for detection. This new bulletin provides much useful information about the types of saffron adulteration in the market and what specifications to consider when purchasing this botanical.”

Ikhlas Khan, PhD, director of the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi, said: “The adulteration issue related to saffron is known to all of us, but it takes a team of experts to document it scientifically and provide tools to mitigate it.”

According to BAPP partner Roy Upton, president of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), who is currently developing a saffron monograph and therapeutic compendium: “I only recently learned of the health-promoting benefits of saffron and have been amazed at the breadth of literature supporting its use, especially for mood. In collecting samples for analysis, we have received plastic stigmas and safflower as well as high-quality material. This makes bulletins such as this all the more valuable for informing stakeholders of the level of sophistication in the world of saffron adulteration.”

The saffron bulletin is BAPP’s 25th bulletin and 71st peer-reviewed publication to date. As with all BAPP publications, the bulletins are freely accessible on BAPP’s website (registration required).

About the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program

The ABC (American Botanical Council)-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program is an international consortium of nonprofit professional organizations, analytical laboratories, research centers, industry trade associations, industry members, and other parties with interest in herbs and medicinal plants. The program advises industry members, researchers, health professionals, government agencies, the media, and the public about various challenges related to adulterated botanical ingredients sold in international commerce. To date, more than 200 US and international parties have financially supported or otherwise endorsed BAPP.

BAPP has published 71 peer-reviewed documents, including Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletins, Laboratory Guidance Documents, Botanical Adulterants Monitor e-newsletters, and articles on botanical adulteration in HerbalGram, ABC’s peer-reviewed journal.