Spice that loves your liver

Spices do more than just add flavour to your favourite Mediterranean or Eastern cuisine. Originally they offered preservative qualities and on occasion could even mask the taste of a rancid meat. Thankfully the latter is usually not the reason for adding a touch of spice these days but we are increasingly aware of the medicinal effects that spices hold. The latest spice to receive a ringing endorsement is saffron, for its apparent ability to protect the liver and reduce your chances of developing liver cancer.

Saffron is made from the dried stigmas of the purple Saffron crocus flower (Crocus sativus). It takes 166 000 blossoms, or 500 000 hand picked stigmas, to make one kilogram of saffron spice. This is why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.

Saffron is used in African, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisines. Its most common function is to colour rice yellow but it also combines well with fish and seafood, and is famous as a key ingredient of Spanish paella as well as bouillabaisse. Now it seems that as well as being tasty, it loves your liver. This is not really surprising since we already knew that saffron is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma – HCC) is the world’s fifth most common cancer. The major risk factors for contracting HCC are chronic infection with hepatitis B and C, iron overload, fatty liver, alcohol abuse, and exposure to environmental toxins (from tobacco smoke, cosmetics, petrol, and processed foods).

To test its effects on liver cancer, saffron was given to rats who had been exposed to factors expected to promote liver cancer. The animals were given a dose of either 75mg/kg bodyweight, 150mg/kg, or 300mg/kg.

The results showed that rats given saffron had a reduced number of liver nodules and those given the highest dose developed no nodules at all. Saffron also reduced levels of proteins that indicate liver damage (like glutamyl transpeptidase) and cut inflammatory chemicals (like cyclooxygenase 2) which promote cancer development.

So saffron may protect against cancer by stopping cancer cells multiplying, encouraging cancer cell death, and blocking inflammation. Mmmm, that next paella might be even tastier now.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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