Fighting food fraud in the saffron market

Tuesday, 19 August, 2014

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. Saffron was listed among the seven most fraud-prone food ingredients according to a review of records from scholarly journals, published in the Journal of Food Science in April 2012.

Extracted from the pistils of the crocus flower, it is the harvest method for saffron that is behind its high value. Each stigma needs to be picked by hand, one by one.

A number of ISO standards have been developed to help fight against this fraud and assist 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 analysing the strength of the spice’s flavour, aroma and colour. In addition, they help laboratories to detect if the saffron is pure.

Fraud is more common with 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 - 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.

Saffron facts

  • Saffron could reach about 30,000 euros/kg
  • About 250,000 flowers are needed for 1 kg of saffron
  • About 5000 kg 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
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