Due to its folkloric popularity as a medicinal herb that cures a hundred illnesses, modern medicine probes into the mystery that is saffron, to study its properties and take advantage of the various potentials it offers to the medical world. As a result, over a hundred chemical components have been isolated and are available for medical even commercial applications.
The three main components of saffron are: crocin, which accounts for the yellow pigmentation from the stigmas; picrocrocin, which gives the rusty, bittersweet flavor; and safranal, which lends the earthy fragrance to the spice.
The chemicals found in saffron may be classified according to their volatility, or the absence of it. Its major non-volatile components include crocin, α-crocin, carotenoids that include lycopene, zeaxanthine, and both alpha- and beta- carotenes, crocetin, and picrocrocin. The major volatile components include terpene, terpene alcohol, and terpene esters. Safranal is also a major volatile composite formed from picrocrocin as a result of the interaction of heat and enzymes during the drying process.
Crocin and picrocin are highly sensitive to light and air, which explains why saffron must be kept in airtight containers and stashed away in a cool, dark place while they are not being used. Exposure to atmospheric oxygen and sunlight will cause oxidation that will greatly reduce the properties of crocin and picrocin, thus lessening the quality of saffron.
Anti-oxidant properties of saffron have also been isolated and are being studied for use on drugs that will combat cancer, depression and other neuro-degenerative disorders.
Saffron's anti-inflammatory properties are also attributed to the components derived from the crocus petals: flavonoids, tannins and anthocyanins. To be specific, flavonoids present include hesperidin, quercetin, rutin, luteolin, and bioflavonoids.
For the many lovers of saffron, the underlying chemical transformations happening while they use saffron may sound Greek to them, but what is important is that they know from experience that saffron gives them that light, giddy feeling that seems to hold promise that everything is going to be alright.