How to recognize quality saffron ?

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Otherwise known as "red gold" and well known in cooking, saffron is the world's most expensive spice. But, as an object of desire it can also be a victim of fraud. Low quality saffron is often traded on international markets, and the specifications for pure saffron are not always respected. So, what is saffron worthy of its name?

Extracted from the pistils of the crocus flower, it is the harvest method for saffron that is behind its high value.

Dr. A. Jayathilak, Chairman of the ISO subcommittee ISO/TC 34/SC 7, spices, culinary herbs and condiments, explained: "Saffron is mostly grown in a belt of land ranging from Mediterranean in the west to Kashmir in the east. It is a unique crop because each stigma needs to be picked by hand, one by one. Its high value has made saffron the object of frequent adulteration".

Standards help detect fraud

Dr. A. Jayathilak, Chairman of the ISO subcommittee ISO/TC 34/SC 7

However, a number of ISO standards can help fight against this fraud and help recognize quality saffron producers. Saffron is considered to be pure when it complies with the requirements of the standard ISO 3632 and when no external matter has been added to the natural product.

The two parts of the standard, ISO 3632-1:2011 and ISO 3632-2:2010, specify test methods for the different categories of dried saffron included powder, filaments and cut filaments.

The standards are useful for analyzing the strength of the spice's flavour, aroma and colour as without these, the fake saffron has no culinary value. In addition, they help laboratories to detect if the saffron is pure or not, that is to say if foreign matters are detected in the product.

Fraud happens more often with the powdered saffron as less expensive spices can be added to increase the mass. Not drying the saffron properly is another way of pushing the price up, as of course the more humid the powder the more it will weigh, so the standard also helps determine the level of humidity. In addition, it recommends how the saffron should be packaged in order to protect it from environmental effects.

Certified saffron helps protect consumers

"The many techniques for saffron fraud is a permanent problem for consumers. The difference in quality between saffron from different places and the subsequent fluctuation of prices have brought in much confusion. Therefore the quality of saffron is certified in the international trade market following the ISO 3632," Dr. A. Jayathilak explained.

Facts and figures

  • Saffron could reach about 30 000 euros/kg
  • About 250,000 flowers are needed for 1 kg of saffron
  • About 5,000kg of crocus bulbs are needed per hectare
  • 1 stigma of saffron weights about 2 mg and each flower has 3 stigmata
  • Iran is the biggest saffron producer in the world with 109 tonnes in 2011

Sandrine Tranchard
Sandrine Tranchard

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