The aromatic spice saffron is worth more by weight than gold. For people with pancreatic cancer, it may someday be even more valuable. At the University of Kansas Medical Center, investigators have found that crocetinic acid, derived from crocetin, an active ingredient in saffron that helps gives the spice its bright red-orange color, strongly inhibits pancreatic cancer in mice. In the study, crocetinic acid targeted and inhibited pancreatic stem cells—which often elude conventional chemotherapy and cause pancreatic cancer to spread. Even at high doses, crocetinic acid showed no toxic effect on normal cells. While much more research, including human studies, is needed before the compound can become a cancer drug, the work is exciting because a nontoxic chemotherapeutic agent against pancreatic cancer is desperately needed—it is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the US and one of the most lethal of all cancers.
The new research was done with a purified substance that is 50 times more concentrated than crocetin, so we don’t know if cooking with saffron or taking saffron supplements can fight cancer. But we already know that the spice is extraordinarily healthful. It has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, protects nerve cells, improves cardiovascular function, enhances memory, reduces anxiety and protects eyesight. Clinical studies have found that saffron supplements slow the progression of the eye disease macular degeneration…and in some cases treat clinical depression just as well as common antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac).
The typical dose in those studies is 30 mg a day, usually taken in two divided doses. That is about as much you would get in a saffron-infused dish—the classic Spanish dish paella, for example, which uses one-quarter of a gram (that is, 250 mg) to feed eight people. Yes, it’s an expensive spice, but it takes only a tiny amount to spread its aromatic beauty to a dish—and enhance health. You can even use it to make a mood-boosting tea. (Note: Culinary saffron is available in the Bottom Line Store.)
A note about safety and quality: Although saffron supplements appear to be very safe, very large doses can be toxic—do not exceed 1,500 mg, which is far above the therapeutic dose used in studies. Also, powdered culinary saffron may be adulterated with cheaper spices such as turmeric or marigold petals—a better bet is to buy saffron threads.