Quality and functionality of saffron: quality control, species assortment and affinity of extract and isolated saffron compounds to NMDA and sigma1 (sigma-1) receptors

Planta Med. 2008 Jun;74(7):764-72. doi: 10.1055/s-2008-1074535. Epub 2008 May 21.


Extracts from saffron, the dried stigmata from Crocus sativus L., are being used more and more in preclinical and clinical trials for the treatment of cancer and depression. Because of the known quality problems of saffron, HPLC methods on RP(18) 2.5 microm and monolithic RP(18) material have been developed and validated for quality control including the quantification of crocins 1 to 5, crocetin, picrocrocin and the degradation products, the CIS-crocins. Additionally, a GC-MS method has allowed detection and quantification of the volatile compounds from the pentane extract of saffron. Both systems together allowed the comprehensive characterisation of saffron herbal material and extracts for clinical/preclinical trials. For effective preparation of the respective reference standards, a fast centrifugal partition chromatography (FCPC) method was developed allowing the quick isolation of crocins 1, 2, 5 and picrocrocin in good yields. Using these chromatographic methods and the reference standards, a representative survey of saffron from the global market indicated a high variability of quality, especially concerning the amounts of volatile compounds in saffron samples. A specification for high-quality saffron of >20% crocins, >6% picrocrocin and not less than 0.3% of volatiles, calculated as sum of safranal, isophorone and ketoisophorone, was developed. Because no detailed pharmacological studies are available to explain the clinical effects of saffron for the treatment of cancer and depression, receptor binding studies were performed. Saffron extracts and crocetin had a clear binding capacity at the PCP binding side of the NMDA receptor and at the sigma(1) receptor, while the crocins and picrocrocin were not effective. These data could give biochemical support for the above-mentioned pharmacological effects of saffron.

Publication types

  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Carotenoids / analysis*
  • Carotenoids / metabolism
  • Crocus / chemistry*
  • Cyclohexanones / analysis
  • Cyclohexenes / analysis
  • Flowers / chemistry
  • Glucosides / analysis
  • Plant Extracts / metabolism*
  • Plant Extracts / standards
  • Quality Control
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / metabolism*
  • Receptors, sigma / metabolism*
  • Reference Standards
  • Terpenes / analysis


  • Cyclohexanones
  • Cyclohexenes
  • Glucosides
  • Plant Extracts
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Receptors, sigma
  • Terpenes
  • sigma-1 receptor
  • trans-sodium crocetinate
  • ketoisophorone
  • isophorone
  • Carotenoids
  • safranal
  • crocin
  • picrocrocin