Saffron can protect sight

The spice can protect against common forms of blindness

Scientists have discovered that saffron, the spice which is commonly used in Spanish, Italian and Indian cuisine, can protect against some of the most common forms of blindness.

The study revealed that eating saffron – which can cost as much as gold – regularly helped to make the delicate cells in the eye needed for vision more resilient against disease.

The researchers also found saffron had a beneficial effect in humans suffering from age-related macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness in old age. Macular degeneration affects more than 500,000 people in the UK and around 2% of people aged over 50 years old suffer from the disease, which is caused by the gradual damage to cells on the retina at the back of the eye.

The scientists, who are based at the University of L’Aquila, in Italy, and Sydney University, in Australia, are now conducting a clinical trial on human patients with age-related macular degeneration.

Saffron
has been used in cooking for thousands of years and is a key ingredient in dishes such as paella, risotto and pilau rice. The spice is produced from the dried stigmas – the part of the plant where pollen grains germinate – of the lilac-coloured flower, Crocus sativus.

Each flower contains three threadlike deep red stigmas that give food a rich yellow colour and subtle flavour. High quality saffron can cost up to £500 for just one pound of the spice, but historically it has cost more than its weight in gold and was the source of lucrative spice trading.

Professor Silvia Bisti, who led the research from the University of L’Aquila, said: ‘Saffron seems to possess a number of properties that are protective to vision. We are now trying to understand the mechanism, but it appears to block cell death. Saffron components have strong antioxidant properties.’

Barbara McLaughlin, campaigns manager for the Royal National Institute of Blind People, said: ‘The first results of small scale trials of saffron in humans seem very encouraging. Clearly, a lot more research is needed to understand how saffron affects the eye and whether it could be turned into an effective treatment.’

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