What is Saffron?

Saffron is a spice made from the dried stigmas of a crocus flower. It has a distinctive earthy smell and flavour. As an additive it is used to give foods a deep rich golden-yellow colour. It has an E number of 164.

Additives with E numbers between 100 and 199 are generally used as food dyes.

Saffron Crop.JPG
Saffron Crop” by Moka2002nOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Saffron is commonly known to be the most expensive spice in the world5.  A Spanish Saffron Tin (2 gram) currently costs about $12.00 U.S.  Each flower produces only three stigmas. One kilogram requires between 110 000 and 170 000 flowers.  Colour and aroma will be lost if the stigmas are left on the flowers too long.  So, the flowers, which are picked by hand, are harvested between dawn and 10:00 am.

Most of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran.  Other major producers include Greece, Morocco and the Kashmir region of India.

The chemical ingredient responsible for it’s colour is called crocin. Crocin is a naturally occurring carotenoid.

Common Uses:

Saffron or crocetin or crocin is commonly used to colour rice dishes, cheeses, and Chartreuse liqueur.  It is also an essential ingredient in bouillabaisse.

Some specific examples include:

Photo of saffron crocusCrocus sativus1” by KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Health Issues / Side Effects:

Saffron can cause anaphylactic (allergic) reactions in some people.


Artificial orange-yellow food dyes include tartrazine, sunset yellow, and quinoline yellow.  More natural colours include turmeric and riboflavin.


  1. Canadian List of Permitted Food Additives
  2. FDA Food Additives Status List
  3. Current EU Approved Food Additives
  4. Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code
  5. The World’s 4 Most Luxurious Spices

Further Reading

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