Saffron has remained one of the world’s most prized and costly substances throughout history.
Its enchanting color and allure as a dye and medicine secured it a prominent position on the trade routes of the ancient world. East and South Asian cultures would anoint their sacred statues and temples with saffron, and Cleopatra would fill her baths with its crocus flowers before meeting her lovers.
It has been actively cultivated for over 3,500 years, and its value continues to be recognized even today.
Besides the somewhat mystical reputation it’s gained over the years, what makes saffron so valuable is its scarcity. Despite even modern agricultural tinkerings, it has proven itself incapable of independent sexual reproduction, and therefore all new plants must be propagated by hand as clones.
This means that it is immune to the scalability of industrial agriculture. It offers us a glimpse into a simpler agricultural past—one that required a more direct and complete relationship between the farmer and his plants.
Saffron offers us much more than sentimental reflection, though.
Research has revealed that it contains a wealth of apocarotenoids, a powerful class of antioxidants. You may have heard of carotenoids like alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and lutein, all of which are found in carrots (the word “carrot” is even derived from the same root as carotenoid).
You’ve probably also heard that carrots are fantastic for your eyes. It turns out that crocin and crocetin, the carotenoids in saffron, boast even more powerful benefits for eyesight.
Saffron heals macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in adults over 50, and its incidence is increasing steadily.
It presents as a blurry spot in the center of your vision, due to the damage or obscuration of the macula, the black spot in the center of the retina. This symptom is merely a nuisance at first, but it can quickly debilitate your daily life by escalating to partial or complete blindness.
There are many practices and remedies that are believed to help prevent AMD. Unsurprisingly, the list includes abstaining from smoking (which is one of the highest risk factors for the disease), exercising regularly, and eating plenty of leafy, green vegetables.
Certain herbs, vitamins, and minerals have also been shown to reduce the risk of developing AMD by up to 25%. Those that have shown the greatest promise are rosemary, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and copper.
Treating the disease once it begins to manifest is another story, however. Usually, doctors have to resort to invasive surgeries and pharmaceutical drugs once the condition has set in.
Luckily, recent studies have shown that saffron is remarkably effective at slowing the progression of AMD and improving vision.
In one study, patients took 20 mg of saffron per day for just 90 days, and all of them improved significantly, according to both clinical measurement data and their personal experience of vision quality. Every one of them reported a marked increase in all aspects of their vision, and thus in their quality of life.
Researchers attribute this healing feat to the antioxidant derivatives mentioned above, crocin and crocetin, which help protect and heal the photoreceptors and cells of the eye.
And here’s an added bonus: this antioxidant activity also lends itself quite well to brain support. In double-blind studies, 15 mg of saffron twice daily was as effective (or more so) than leading pharmaceuticals for both depression and Alzheimer’s disease (Prozac and Aricept, respectively).
Ready to take advantage of this amazing spice?
Getting started with saffron is easy. Even though the study cited above used saffron supplements measured in milligrams, using it for cooking is just as effective as taking a supplement. Saffron is expensive enough already; don’t worry about purchasing fancy extracts.
Seek out whole saffron threads or stigmas rather than powder; they usually ensure more potent carotenoid content. Steep the threads in hot water or broth for 5-20 minutes before adding them to your dish (saffron is excellent in rice and risotto dishes, as well as stews and pasta sauces).
If you’d like some more recipe ideas, consider picking up a saffron-focused cookbook like this one.
After you add a couple saffron dishes to your repertoire, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do so sooner. You can’t go wrong with a spice that’s both richly delicious and deeply healing.
 Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group, “A randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of high-dose supplementation with vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and zinc for age-related macular degeneration and vision loss: AREDS report no. 8,” Archives of Ophthalmology, vol. 119, pp. 1417–1436, 2001.