• Murdoch University researchers have discovered that saffron could be a natural treatment for mild depressive and anxiety symptoms in teenagers. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)
The key to lifting a teenager's mood or alleviating an adult's mild depressive symptoms might be sitting on your spice rack, according to new research.
By
Yasmin Noone

14 Mar 2018 - 12:10 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2018 - 12:44 PM

The world’s most expensive spice, saffron, is proving its worth, well beyond the kitchen.

A few years back, scientists discovered that saffron was a promising natural antidepressant option for adults with mild depression. Now, Murdoch University researchers have found that saffron could be used a natural treatment for mild depressive and anxiety symptoms in teenagers.

The world-first research, published this month in Journal of Affective Disorders, involved nearly 70 Australian adolescents, aged 12-16 years, with moodiness or mild anxiety.

“This study has shown that saffron has the potential to be an effective treatment with very few side effects for anxiety and depression in adolescents."

Over the course of eight weeks, adolescents were given 14mg of patented saffron supplement (affron®) or placebo twice daily.

The results showed that teens taking saffron experienced a 33 per cent improvement in mood, compared to only 17 per cent in people taking the placebo.

“This study has shown that saffron has the potential to be an effective treatment with very few side effects for anxiety and depression in adolescents,” study co-author and Murdoch University researcher, Dr Adrian Lopresti says.

“Saffron was particularly effective in reducing symptoms associated with separation anxiety, depression and social phobia, and participants reported a reduction in headaches over the eight weeks as well."

Chicken and saffron couscous

The best thing about Moroccan and North African cooking is that balance between sweet, sour and spice and this dish covers all those bases. #RecipeForLife

The researchers are now working to identify the right dose needed to lift moods and how long the treatment can be used for.

Although saffron, in this one study, was found to improve a teenager's response to stress, people suffering from stress or other mental health issues are advised to always identify and treat the initial cause of stress as it occurs. 

“Saffron was particularly effective in reducing symptoms associated with separation anxiety, depression and social phobia, and participants reported a reduction in headaches over the eight weeks as well."

An expensive treatment

Saffron, an exotic spice, is said to be the most expensive product in the supermarket, priced at double the value of gold.

In Woolworths, for example, a 0.5gram packet of saffron costs over $7. Saffron - marketed as being of a premium quality - can be found online, purchased direct from suppliers for almost $170 for 25 grams ($6.80 a gram). In the UK, it's estimated that one gram can sell for anything between $8 AUD to $18 AUD a gram. 

The high cost is caused, in part, by the labour-intensive process of sourcing saffron threads from the flower Crocus sativus, commonly known as the "saffron crocus". Each flower produces a small number of stigmas which need to be hand-picked and dried in order to be used with food. 

Saffron is used widely in Indian cuisine, and is also found in South Asian, Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean dishes.

Cooking with quantities of saffron, large enough to provide a teen or adult with the desired health effect, may be prohibitively expensive.

The study’s authors believe that supplements – which were used in this study – could be a far more cost effective way to ingest the spice.

However, as the research was funded by Pharmactive Biotech Products SL, this statement warrants further investigation.

Dr Lopresti and Professor Drummond are now also looking at whether the combined use of saffron and a pharmaceutical antidepressant works better than an antidepressant alone, in adults with depression.

Other health claims 

Scientific research into the health uses of saffron are starting to show that it may additional benefits on the body and mind. 

A 2015 study shows that the exotic spice can improve the symptoms and effects of depression in adults, as well as "premenstrual syndrome, sexual dysfunction and infertility, and excessive snacking behaviors". 

One randomized controlled trial examined as part of the research review demonstrated that found that women with regular menstrual cycles experiencing premenstrual syndrome who took 30mg/d of saffron supplementation for eight weeks reported relief in premenstrual symptoms and depression levels compared to placebo.

Saffron is used as a home remedy to stop hair loss and to tone the skin, although research is needed to determine if these uses are myths or fact. 

Note: SBS does not endorse the use of saffron in any quantity as a treatment for any health condition. Always consult a medical professional for advice on your health before considering any kind of treatment.

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Saffron-inspired recipes
Fregola Sarda with saffron mussels and clams
<p><span>Fregola sarda (rolled balls of semolina), a specialty of Sardinia, is cooked with saffron (grown on the island) with a luxe mix of seafood.&nbsp;</span></p>
Crispy bottomed Persian rice

This is a riff on the traditional Persian rice dish called tahdig, which is tinged golden from saffron and cooked on the stovetop to develop a crusty rice base. 

Persian golden rice
<p><span>This is a riff on the traditional Persian rice dish called tahdig, which is golden from saffron and cooked on the stovetop to develop a crusty rice base.</span></p>
Orange-pistachio Bundt cake with saffron syrup

Looks impressive but is really a one-bowl mix done in a food processor.

Ricotta gulab jamun with saffron syrup

These Indian doughnuts, known as gulab jamun, are soaked in a sugar syrup until they double in size. 

Marinated chicken with charred limes, saffron butter and soft flatbreads

Sally Butcher and her husband Jamshid kindly talked me through this recipe, which is a Middle Eastern classic. Poussin are skinned, cut up and left to sit in a bath of lime juice for 24 hours, before they are grilled or barbecued, basted all the while with saffron butter. 

Roasted apricots with honey, cardamom and saffron

A simple roasting method that will leave you with a tray of delicious spiced apricots. They can be eaten warm as a dessert with ice-cream or eaten with yoghurt for breakfast. They are also just as happy to be used alongside some lamb or pork. 

Almond and saffron cake

A super-moist and featherlight cake, it has bitter hints of orange peel and gentle pops of cardamom. Serve and enjoy any time of the day.