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BAPP Issues Bulletin on Adulteration of Saffron and Saffron Extracts

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


The ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) recently released a Botanical Adulterants Prevention Bulletin on saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae) stigmas and extracts. Each saffron plant produces only one flower with a three-branched stigma emerging from the flower’s 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 low yield per plant and time-consuming labor make saffron the most expensive spice in the world.

Saffron has a documented history of use 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. Growing evidence from clinical trials also supports saffron extract’s beneficial effects on sleep.

Wholesale and retail saffron prices range from $500 to $5,000 per pound. Its high price incentivizes economically motivated adulteration. Adulterants include various naturally red-colored plant materials, such as pomegranate (Punica granatum, Lythraceae) fruit peel or fibers and safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, Asteraceae) and calendula (Calendula officinalis, Asteraceae) flowers, as well as red-dyed paper strips, silk fibers, and corn (Zea mays, Poaceae) stigmas. Some adulterators also have mixed powdered saffron with ground turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae) or paprika (Capsicum annuum, Solanaceae) as undisclosed lower-cost bulking agents.

The saffron bulletin was written by Stefan Gafner, PhD, chief science officer of the American Botanical Council (ABC) and technical director of BAPP, and four scientists in the herbal supply industry: Aboli Girme, PhD, Amit Mirgal, PhD, and Lal Hingorani, PhD, of Pharmanza Herbal Pvt. Ltd. (Gujarat, India); and Bhaumik Darji of Verdure Sciences (Noblesville, Indiana). The bulletin summarizes the published data on saffron stigma adulteration, lists 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 extracts. Twenty experts in pharmacognosy (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 reviewed the bulletin.

“Saffron is one of the most widely adulterated botanical ingredients worldwide,” Gafner said. “Some types of adulteration are uncovered readily, 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 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. As with all BAPP publications, the bulletins are freely accessible on BAPP’s website (registration required).