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The Three Most Expensive Spices

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Written by   379
2 months ago

The three most expensive spices are saffron, genuine vanilla, and cardamom. Let's take a look at their medical effects.


From old French safran, originally from Arabic za'faran.

Crocus sativus, a low ornamental plant, which has crocus-like purple-coloured flowers, provides saffron.

The dried, orange coloured stigmas of the flowers are (and have been), used as a dye, for seasoning and in medicine.

Saffron is mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, and its use can be traced back to the Assyrian culture (7th century BC), and even farther back to the Sumerian. For a long time it was used primarily as a medicine (for a multitude of disorders, but mainly to increase menstruation, or as a sedative), or as an expensive dye. The ladies of nobility of the Antiquity often wore yellow robes, dyed with saffron. Its most common contemporary use is as a spice, in bread, or for the colouring of rice, etc.

Saffron is the most expensive of all spices. It takes about 150000 flowers to give one kg of the stuff! (The information on the amount required varies considerably from source to source.)

As a spice it should be enjoyed sparingly. 10g is a lethal dose for an adult human.

Saffron contains several medically active carotenoids: alpha- and beta-carotene, zeaxanthin and lycopene.

Taste and aroma are caused by safronal and pirocrocin, both formed by the breakdown of zeaxanthin.

The colouring matter is called crocin, another carotenoid, which can also be obtained from the Gardenia grandiflorus of China.

A composite plant, Carthamus tinctorius, cultivated mainly in China, India, Egypt, Mexico, the United States, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and in the South of Europe, safflower, is sometimes called "false saffron". Its large orange flowers are dried and used as a drug and as dye, yellow or red. Previously used to dye textiles and alcoholic beverages, and to make false saffron. It is sometimes called "bastard saffron". During the last decades, along with the development of synthetic colours, it is and has been cultivated mainly for the production of safflower oil.

Safflower oil can be used in painting, to replace linseed oil (which is the common in ordinary oil painting), because it lacks the linseed oil's tendency to tone the colours yellowish.

Turmeric, too, is sometimes used as false saffron. If you find cheap saffron in subtropical or tropical countries, it almost certainly is either safflower or turmeric.


Genuine vanilla is the world's most expensive spice after saffron. It's made from the seed pods of Vanilla planifolia (or fragrans), Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitensis – all of them stemming from a Mexican orchid.

The word vanilla is derived from Spanish vaina, which means “little pod”.

Due to the high price of vanilla, synthetic vanillin is increasingly used, and has been estimated to cover 95% of industrial use of vanilla flavour. Synthetic flavour can be made from different compounds, nowadays mostly from guaiacol or lignin, and is used in food, perfumes, cigarettes, etc. It is artificial and has no medical use; it will not further interest us here.

Also beware of vanilla that is adulterated with tonka bean powder. Tonka beans taste similar to vanilla, but contain a high level of coumarin, a compound that might damage the liver.

Healthwise, genuine vanilla has powerful properties. It contains antioxidants, reduces inflammation, can improve digestion and reduce nausea. Studies indicate that it can cure cases of male impotence. It is also a mild antidepressant and reduces stress.

Vanilla strongly affects the brain by increasing cognitive performance. The mechanism is linked to its anti-inflammatory properties, but further explanation of that is beyond the scope of this article.

Further, vanilla has a powerful anti-fungal effect. This, however, along with many other health benefits, is completely destroyed by heating. And dried beans often have a trace of mould – which means they contain mycotoxins (toxins generated by fungi, such as mould). No need to state the obvious: the presence of mould makes the beans severely harmful. Mycotoxins should be avoided at any cost.

To sum it up: Vanilla is good for you, but only if it has never been heated and if it contains no mould.


Cardamom is also of the family Zingiberaceae and related to ginger and turmeric. There are two genera, Elattaria (green cardamom, or only cardamom) and Amomum (black cardamom, Bengal cardamom). Both are native to the Himalaya region.

The word “cardamom” originates from Mycenaean ka-da-mi-ja. “Amomum” is probably derived from Aramaic hemama, while “Elattaria” is derived from Sanskrit, possibly leading back to a Dravidian root, el.

Both forms are used as spices. Medically Amomum is a part of traditional medicine of China and India, mainly for stomach-related problems.

Green cardamom is used against infection in teeth, gums, and throat, digestive disorders and certain respiratory problems. Sometimes also for detoxification and especially for cleansing of the kidneys and bladder.

Studies on animals show anti-tumorous properties.

Cardamom increases the speed with which digesting food is passing through the intestine. This is important. Food retained in the intestines is a contributory cause of numerous health problems.

It has positive effects on the blood, where it prevents clotting.

Finally, it is traditionally used as an aphrodisiac, especially against impotence.

(This article is based on material previously published in TMA/Meriondho Leo and in my e-book “Spices & Herbs”, 2018.)

Related articles:

The King & Queen of Spices: Turmeric & Ginger

Spices & Health: Cumin, Anise, Star Anise, and Fennel

Fenugreek, Lactation & Male Libido

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Written by   379
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I thought that saffron was the only "precious" spice))

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2 months ago

I know vanilla but I haven't tried the other two. These are spices not readily available in my city. Maybe I haven't explored that much :D

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2 months ago

Very interesting from your each article we get a chance to learn more. "the most expensive spices" I never know about it before reading this article

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2 months ago