In an interview with ISNA, Dr. Hassan Rezadoust referred to the four years that the researchers of the Research Institute of Medicinal Plants have been working on saffron, and said, “What should be noted about saffron is that we have about 350 to 400 tonnes of annual production (according to the agricultural year based on the statistics on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture Jihad). For instance, Iran’s saffron production in the agricultural year of 2016 was about 336 tonnes. Also, over 80 to 90 percent of the world’s cultivation  area of saffron is in Iran and this country is considered the biggest producer of saffron in the world.”

He referred to the quality control and raw sale as the two most important issues regarding saffron , “Saffron is cultivated in various parts of the country, for instance in 2015, with the collaboration of Iranian National Standards Organization and Presidency of I.R. of Iran; Center for Progress and Development, we targeted 22  saffron regions of Iran for the first time, and subsequently sampled them. The increasing cultivation of this product is due to the fact that it is among luxury goods, it has a high cost as well as it requires little water. Saffron is cultivated in wide range of areas, from the cold regions of West and East Azerbaijan to the southern regions and Yazd. Of course, the amount and value of its export is announced by the officials in the Ministry of Agriculture Jihad as well as the Customs of Iran; however, we can say that the majority of saffron produced in Iran, is exported, and some of those countries that import this product, are themselves second exporters. For example, Spain and Afghanistan buy Iran’s saffron then export it; if Iran annually produces 350 to 400 tonnes of saffron, Afghanistan’s production is a mere three tonnes, but we see that its export is more than that number, which shows that they supply their saffron from  other places.”

The  cultural deputy of the Research Institute of Medicinal Plants went on to say, “There is a global standard of ISO3632 for saffron and whoever produces it, is to determine the quality according to the protocol 3632 or 259 of Iran’s standard, which is based on spectrophotometry, measuring saffron extract in 3 wavelenghths.”

He added, “Our first efforts in the field of saffron was to provide reference materials which exist in the world, and determine the quality of our saffron. At the same time, Spain and Italy publish papers that show they have saffron samples of, for instance three cities of Iran as well as those of three cities of Italy and that the metabolites, color and smell of Iran’s saffron is less than those of Spain and Italy. That led to us carrying out the same experiment and learning about the quality of Iran’s saffron.”

This academy member of the Research Institute of Medicinal Plants pointed to the unavailability of reference materials to standardize saffron and stated, “there was no references necessary for standardization of saffron, i.e for instance, there was a problem with the active compound that Sigma company had. This lack of reference is natural because saffron belongs to us, and there is no need for American and European countries to have them.”

New Method Proposed to Measure Saffron Quality

Rezadoust added, “The first step we took and a paper we published was to introduce two new methods, one based on  liquid chromatography and the other thin-layer chromatography, and announced that the ISO3632 or 259 which is based on spectrophotometry cannot be a valid criterion to measure the quality of saffron. In order to have a more precise  measurement, we introduced chromatography and to carry out this method, we prepared the reference of saffron ourselves and purified some standards as a criterion for the quality of saffron, which is currently being presented to some foreign companies.”

Referring to the purification of color and taste standards, Dr. Rezadoust said, “The products were given to foreign companies, free of charge, because we did not know of the results; however, we now sell them at a very low cost, comparing to the price in the world’s market. The domestic companies who have done research in this regard, received the standards too. We now have the color and taste index of saffron on sale.”

Standard Saffron Extract

He indicated, “In terms of saffron smell, we can produce the flavor, but saffron flavor has been so accessible that we did not feel the need to produce it. Therefore, the first stage was to determine a method to measure the quality of saffron and we now have papers in this regard. During this activity, we collected samples of saffron from all the regions that produce this plant, and for the first time prepared a qualitative metabolic pathway for smell, color and taste indexes.”

Rezadoust added, ” We prepared metabolic pathway for the whole country, and based on that the differences between the saffron from Yazd region and  that of Khorasan’s was determined. In the next stage, we prepared the color and taste indexes of saffron in a pilot scale. What we have done so far is to produce the standard extract of saffron. The extract can be given to cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies instead of the raw saffron. In this stage we do not have pilot scale, but we have the ability to produce it in a pilot scale. Therefore, instead of the annual export of saffron, the extract can be exported, with a better credit for a value added of the product which is being exported.”

Referring to the research conducted in the field of saffron, he said, “We succeeded in reducing the microbial load of saffron using laboratory techniques as well as the assistance of university colleagues. One of the problems with saffron is that this plant can absorb the bacterial pollutants due to the fact that animal fertilizers are used for its cultivation and it is manually harvested.”

Observations on Using Herbicides  

Rezadoust stated, “One of our other activity is regarding the herbicides that remain on saffron. There have been reports that prove that sometimes herbicides are used, but not so much in saffron cultivation, although we have witnessed that in saffron, to some degree.”

Rezadoust indicated that the comparison between the different extracting techniques can reveal how a high quality extract can be obtained in a minimum amount of time, “Another positive outcome of our collaboration with Presidency of I.R. of Iran; Center for Progress and Development, is the proposition of promoting Iran’s standard from spectrophotometry to chromatography, which we are now presenting some good laboratories with these standard samples, later we will compare the laboratories’ results, and the methods can be put to practice in all the labs and then every lab can use chromatography,  which is a more precise method and a correct criterion to measure saffron, instead of spectrophotometry, which is a faulty protocol.”   

Cultural deputy of Research Institute of Medicinal Plants referred to some reports claiming Afghanistan’s saffron is of better quality than that of Iran’s and said, “Having developed this method, we can now say with more certainty where Iran’s saffron stands in comparison with that of Mexico, Greece, Italy, Spain, Malaysia and Afghanistan. We manage this method with the collaboration of Presidency of I.R. of Iran; Center for Progress and Development. As the world’s main producer of saffron, we need to show that the papers claiming that Afghanistan and Spain’s saffron is of higher quality than that of Iran’s, are not accurate.”

Regarding the publication of data, he said, “There is some data which is considered as national data, and is preferred not to be published.”

According to Rezadoust, raw sale of saffron takes up 2 to 10 percent of saffron trade turnover. The main part of the trade of saffron is the one which saffron is turned into medicinal and cosmetic products.”