Consumer Guide for buying Saffron

Saffron( Safran, Azafra`n, زعفران ) also referred to as RED GOLD traces its origins from ancient 7th century BC texts during the bronze age and spans many cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus flower (Crocus Sativus), has remained among the world's most costly spices throughout history. 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.

Its high value has made saffron the object of frequent adulteration.

The factors which are very important in saffron are crocin (color),picrocrocin (flavor) and safranal (aroma). Higher amount of these compounds in saffron provide higher quality of saffron.Grading of saffron is done through gauging Picrocrocin (flavor), Crocin (color) and Safranal (aroma) content. This is done in the laboratory by ISO professionals, and the higher the number of these 3 factors means the higher the saffron quality. 

The International Standards Organisation (, Geneva) has set out the testing of saffron quality in two detailed documents (ISO 3632-1 and -2). These set out a test for the content of three biologically active molecules in saffron - picrocrocin, safranal and crocin. Using UV spectrometry, the test measures the concentrations of these three molecules in a standard aqueous extraction. The highest quality saffron is designated Category 1 by the ISO.

According to the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) the minimum requirement for coloring strength is 190-220 to be considered Grade 1. 

Yellow saffron aka American saffron aka Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) looks like the real thing (Crocus sativus) but is dirt cheap. Flavor is almost neutral, but it does have similar coloring abilities to the real thing.

There are many other simple & proven ways to test the quality of saffron without any expensive lab tests. I have categorized these tests into 2 groups – Sensory and Extrasensory.

Using our sensory perceptions of Sight-Smell-Taste and extrasensory techniques of Cold Water Method, Float Test & Baking soda water test.


1. Sight 

The price of Saffron greatly varies by the cut of the Saffron stigma or thread/filament.

Grade 1 or A+ or All Red(Sargol or Negin): All red saffron that contains stigmas only. This grade of Saffron is100% Premium Saffron. This is also natively know as Super-Negin or Sargol Saffron. It is the top 1/3 or 2/3 part of the Saffron filament. It is highly priced due to its potent color & aroma. It is the purest and finest quality saffron.

Grade 2 or A or Thread (Pushal) : Class A or Grade 2 Saffron contains the red stigmas and connected to the end part of the style that is yellow/ white in color. This category of saffron is also costly and mostly used for daily cooking use and available in most of the leading grocery stores nationwide.

Grade 3 or B or Tied bunch ( Dasteh): Contains the red stigmas connected to the entire style. This is typically low cost and low quality and available in all major local grocery stores. It overall weight of the thread contains more floral matter(Style). It's typical use is in perfumes(attars) , fragrances, incense & aromatic flavors.

A better visual test is looking at the shape of the filaments, which should be trumpet shaped and vivid Crimson Red with a slightly lighter orange-red color on the tips, and saffron's aroma must be strong and fresh not musty.

Whenever it is mixed in a glass of hot milk, a strand of reddish saffron changes to golden color, which means it is pure.

2. Smell - While the color is mainly due to the degraded carotenoids (crocin and crocetin), the flavor comes from the carotenoid oxidation products (mainly safranal and the bitter glucoside picrocrocin). Pure saffron aroma is very interesting. If you know what Honey smells like, and you also know what hay smells like…you would know what Real Saffron Aroma is. It is literally a blend of hay and honey smells.

3. Taste - Saffron contains Crocus compound (i.e. Crocin) which makes it taste bitter. Pure saffron tastes bitter, and the flavor is quite distinct. Precisely the taste is light, cutting, warm, bitter and it then slowly dissipates from your palette.  To determine if the saffron is genuine, all you need to do is ask the vendor for 3 or 4 threads of saffron which you put on your tongue and suck on for a few seconds. You will experience a sharp, bitter taste on your taste buds. Then spit the threads out onto a clean paper-tissue and rub them inside the tissue. If the paper tissue color appears yellow, you know you are buying genuine saffron. If the color appears red, you are being sold colored threads.

4. Cold Water Test - Put Saffron in water. After 5-10 mins, real saffron filaments will color the water in a yellowish-golden hue. The color release would be slow and steady without the saffron threads losing its own deep reddish color. Also when you take the thread out of the water, it wouldn’t have lost its original deep-red color, whereas if the Saffron is fake, it would completely or partial discoloration of the saffron thread would happen and the saffron would lose it original deep red color. Dyed Corn Silk threads are sometimes sold as fake saffron.

5. Float Test : Another test of real Saffron is the Float Test that real saffron threads do not drown when put in water. They would rather float. Fake Saffron threads would partially or completely submerge in water because of the heaviness of the colored dye or the floral wastage on them. 

6. Baking Soda Test : A very interesting test is to add a little baking soda in water and mix it. Then add saffron to the mixture. The water/baking soda mix shall turn yellow if it’s Pure Saffron and the fake one will turn dim red.

The Saffron available on are Category 1- Super Negin Grade, meaning that they contain less than 0.5% flower parts and less than 0.1% other extraneous matter.

So How Can You Tell Top Quality Saffron?
Well first you should learn how to recognize a lesser quality saffron. In addition to the red stigmas you should also look for lots of white or yellow strands and even a mushy texture (this is due to a higher water moisture content used to add weight to the product). As mentioned earlier the yellow is from the style which provides no flavor or aroma – too much yellow or moistness are both sure signs of a lower grade saffron.

Top grade saffron possesses a deep red color, is dry to the touch and the stigmas will be 3/8" to 1/2" in length.
While this grading is now the standard many sophisticated home cooks and top quality chefs reject such lab test results. They look at saffron more like wine connoisseur and prefer to sample saffron threads for taste, aroma, pliability and color.