Suspicious saffron

by Nicola Temple | June 5, 2015

Nearly a year ago I walked into a local supermarket that specialises in Asian food. There are things here that I can find nowhere else in Bristol and it is just good fun sometimes to have a mosey about the shelves. I got to a cabinet that contained saffron. It was locked, but I could spy the products behind the glass. One of the little cases of saffron claimed to be ‘Pure Spanish Saffron’. It was 2 grams of the stuff and it was selling for a little over £2 – about 1/6th of the price of the saffron I had purchased recently from Waitrose. I had to have it!

Writing a book about food fraud makes one inherently suspicious of all food. To the point where I found myself in this supermarket specifically seeking out food that was suspicious and, more alarmingly, getting excited about it.

I came home, had a look at the threads under a microscope, did some reading and put it through a few other tests to determine its authenticity (I will describe this in more detail below). All tests pointed to the likelihood of the cheap saffron being at least partially fake. I contacted the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on their foodfraud reporting email (foodfraud@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk). I gave a complete description of the product and of where I had purchased the product and the tests I had conducted, which had raised my suspicions. In my mind I was handing them a case on a plate.

Within a week I received an email that said I should follow this up with the store or the distributor. What? To me this was equivalent to the police telling me I should follow up with the kids who robbed me and ask for my stuff back. OK – so perhaps in the wake of horse meat scandals and nut protein in cumin, some fake saffron didn’t seem like a big priority, but it certainly wasn’t the response I expected. I was deflated. The saffron went into the cupboard and was forgotten.

Inspired by ‘seasoned criminals’

A year later and I have just finished writing my chapter on spice adulteration, which I have titled ‘Seasoned criminals’. Learning of the extent of fraud among the spices reinvigorated my desire to follow up on this suspicious saffron.

Saffron is known as one of the most expensive spices in the world. Rightly so. It is the dried stigmas of the domesticated flower Crocus sativus, which are picked by hand. It takes nearly 30 hours of labour to harvest the 100,000 stigmas needed to make up a kilo of saffron, worth an average of £6,500 (nearly $10,000 US).

The premium price of saffron makes it a logical target for economic fraud. It’s weight can be increased by adding wasted bits of the saffron flower, or infusing the saffron with syrups, glycerine, oils, gypsum, borax and starch. Going one step further, mimics of the saffron threads (stamens) can be produced. Parts from other flower species entirely, such as marigolds, carnations, poppies and safflower, can be dyed to look like saffron. More creatively, there have been reports of beet fiber, capsicum, corn silk, grass, onion, silk, gelatine and even dried animal meat being fashioned into little replica saffron threads.

While most of these organic substitutes are harmless, the dyes that are used to turn them the characteristic colour of saffron are less so. Quinoline yellow, which is a permitted food additive in Europe (E104) and Australia, is not permitted in Canada and the US. Ponceau 4R is a synthetic colourant that is approved in some countries including all of Europe, but is not permitted in the US or Canada. Tartrzine and sunset yellow are also used and all of these colourants have been linked to hyperactivity in children.

It gets worse. Methyl orange, naphthol yellow and red 2G have also been reported colourants used in saffron. Methyl orange has mutagenic properties while the latter two have been banned in a number of countries, including Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, the US and all of Europe as a result of health concerns.

Putting saffron to the test

So how can you put your saffron to the test? First of all, it’s safe to say that if a deal on saffron seems to good to be true, it probably is. Avoid cheap saffron.

However, if you are suspicious of your saffron, the easiest test is to put it into some luke-warm water. This is what I did again recently with mine. I placed five threads each of my suspicious saffron and my trusted saffron on two separate white plates. I added 20 mL of tepid tapwater to each. Immediately the suspicious saffron gave off a very dark yellow to orange colour, while the trusted saffron slowly released a more yellow colouring (Fig 1).

Ten minutes later, both saffron samples were still giving off considerable colour. However, the suspicious saffron was starting to lose colour from the threads while the trusted saffron maintained its vibrant red colour (Fig 2). A little swirl of the plate and the water of the suspicious saffron was deep orange and three of the threads were colourless and not resembling the hardy stigmas at all (Fig 3). The trusted saffron stigmas looked the same as when I had first put them in.

Fig. 1. Suspicious saffron on the left and trusted saffron on the right. Immediately after adding tepid water.

Fig. 1. Suspicious saffron on the left and trusted saffron on the right. Immediately after adding tepid water.

Fig. 2. Ten minutes after adding water, the suspicious saffron on the left is starting to lose colour in the threads.

Fig. 2. Ten minutes after adding water, the suspicious saffron on the left is starting to lose colour in the threads.

Fig. 3. After giving the plates a swirl, three of the suspicious saffron threads have completely lost their colour and don't look anything like stigmas. The trusted saffron on the right looks the same as it did initially.

Fig. 3. After giving the plates a swirl, three of the suspicious saffron threads have completely lost their colour and don’t look anything like stigmas. The trusted saffron on the right looks the same as it did initially.

Feeling more confident in my suspicions, I contacted the retailer where I had purchased the saffron and I told them about my experience. Within an hour I had an email back. They were concerned that the product was not what it said it was and they provided me the contact information of their supplier. I will follow up with them shortly and share the outcome. In the meantime…I must turn my attentions to more book writing!

 

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