Are you sure you’ve bought saffron or zafran? They could be corn silk threads

Are you sure you’ve bought saffron or zafran? They could be corn silk threads

Dubbed as ‘red gold’, this spice is subject to saffron fraud globally

The saffron you buy might be corn silk threads Image Credit: Shutterstock

Saffron’s golden hue and delicate taste have found flavour across cuisines, be it in an Italian risotto or the Iranian Joojeh kabab. However, this is an expensive spice and as with many things that are highly priced, quite susceptible to adulteration.

What is saffron fraud?

A spice derived from the crocus sativus flower, saffron is the name given to the vivid crimson threads Image Credit: Shutterstock

A spice derived from the crocus sativus flower, saffron is the name given to the vivid crimson threads or ‘stigmata’ of the flower. These ‘threads’ when removed from the flower, are then dried and used in food and medicine.

Grown primarily in Greece, Iran, Morocco and India, saffron is handpicked, and it takes about 150,000 to 160,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of the spice, which is almost 450,000 strands. Handpicking saffron is a labour-intensive job and can take up to 40 hours on an average, before it is dried and boxed. Overall, an expensive process, so many retailers take the easy way out – they combine part of the real saffron and mix it with corn strings dyed in edible food colouring. Does not harm your health but it is fake.

In May 2021, Spanish officials arrested 17 suspected members of a criminal network that allegedly made over €10 million (Dh42 million approximately), wherein they mixed Iranian saffron with other herbs and chemicals. In late 2019, a crime ring was caught in the UK for selling fake saffron, which prompted a two-year international investigation. Before that in 2010, 90 per cent of saffron exports from Spain were declared fraudulent, as per a report by the Telegraph in UK. Apparently, saffron smugglers thrive on Iranian saffron, especially because it yields “90 per cent of the world’s saffron”, as per the international Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

How to test the quality?

How do we make sure that what we are buying is the real thing? Image Credit: Shutterstock

The UAE has extremely stringent food and quality control checks in place. However, as travel opens up, we will visit countries and shop, which might include saffron among the purchases. How do we make sure that what we are buying is the real thing?

1. Know your flower

It is easy to remember a saffron flower. It has purple petals, two yellow stamens and three red stigmata or ‘threads’. These threads have a slightly distinct shape – where the upper part of it is shaped like a trumpet and narrows down to the bottom, whereas corn silk threads maintain an elongated shape. The stigmas aren’t shiny. If they do appear like that, chances are you have an adulterated version of saffron. However, you can test this – we’ll come to that.

2. Trust your senses

Real saffron has an aroma that combines the scents of hay and honey – musky and sweet. If you taste your saffron, it should have a bitter taste, overpowering the sweet taste.

3. Sealing the deal

We’ve established that saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices. If your saffron is priced at a nominal rate, chances are it’s not the real deal. Real saffron will cost you quite a bit. According to, which is the official website for the International Organisation for Standardisation, "…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....”

4. Sealing your saffron

When buying a box of saffron, always keep an eye out for the ‘ISO Standard 3632’ certification. ISO (International Organization for Standardisation) is a global organization that develops standards to ensure the quality, safety, and efficiency of products, services, and systems.

Testing your saffron

Test 1: In case you’ve already gone ahead and just bought a new box of saffron, fret not. There are a few home tests (tried and tested by us), that you can use to determine the authenticity of your saffron. The easiest way is to steep a few strands of saffron in warm water.

If the saffron strands retain its crimson red colour after being soaked, you’ve got yourself the original spice. If it loses colour, you bought corn strings dipped in food colouring.

Test 2: Another way to determine the quality of saffron is by checking how quickly the water turns golden yellow. Real saffron retains a mellow golden yellow colour and the strand doesn’t break when rubbed together. Adulterated saffron can diffuse easily in water, can turn it dark orange and falls apart when rubbed together.

Test 3: In case you still don’t want to go through the process of dipping saffron in water, you can also place a dry thread or two in between the pages of a book. If it breaks or powders easily, your saffron is real. If it doesn’t, it is adulterated.

If the testing has helped you identify the originality of saffron, put it to delicious use by making these recipes:

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