Uncover the Secret World of Saffron Adulteration Detection
Author : Hamed Biglari | 2023 Aug 07

Uncover The Secret World Of Saffron Adulteration Detection

Saffron (Crocus Sativus L.) is a spice of vulnerable medical importance. It is often adulterated to lower its quality and efficacy. The present study sought to detect the impurity level in five traded saffron collected from different localities using high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with high-resolution tandem mass spectrometry (UPLC-HR-MS/MS) technique. In total, 62 metabolites were identified in the five extracts, namely from monoterpene aldehydes, flavonoid derivatives, apocarotenoids, carotenoid classes, and chemical markers of adulteration. One common adulterant, Gardenia jasminoides Ellis, was detected by determining its specific constituents, including genocide, shanzhiside, and major jasminosides. Also, one synthetic dye, auramine-O, was seen in one marketed saffron product. The anticholinesterase activity of the five marketed saffron was also evaluated.

Furthermore, saffron samples that contain high crocin levels possessed promising anticholinesterase activity. It was detected for the first time that auramine-O dye is sometimes used as a potential adulterant of saffron. Despite the grand research on saffron, it still lacks an accurate evaluation of commercial saffron products. Our study's results showed that the high adulteration rate of trade saffron reduces saffron efficacy as a herbal remedy and may simultaneously represent a health risk.

Saffron (Crocus et al.) is an exceptional flowering plant of the Iridaceae family that is indigenous to Iran, India, Spain, and Italy. Saffron is considered the world's most costly spice by weight and is traditionally used as a natural food colorant with multiple health benefits. Iran is the leading country providing more than 90% of global saffron. Iranian saffron is classified in the markets into three categories: Pushal, Negin, and Sargol saffron. Pushal saffron is the dried stigma and style of saffron. While the main difference between Negin and Sargol is that the red stigma has been broken in Sargol (Mohamadzadeh Moghadam et al., 2020).

The international specification standard (ISO, 2010) is the official method for assessing saffron quality in the global trade markets. It is based on estimating specific marker compounds in saffron in pharmaceutical preparations or dietary supplements, especially picrocrocin, safranal, and crocin (Moras et al., 2018). The unique taste and aroma of saffron samples are the main hallmark of its quality. They can vary significantly depending on the geographical origin, applied pre- and post-harvest processes, and other environmental conditions. In traditional medicine, saffron has been used as an anti-angina, analgesic and sedative. In addition, other pharmacological activities of saffron, such as antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and anti-atherosclerotic, have also been reported.

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease (AD) slow the eventual neuronal death accompanied by progressive loss of cognitive functions and sensory dysfunctions (Reitz et al., 2011). The global prevalence of Alzheimer’s was estimated to be as high as it affected more than 44 million people worldwide, so it is considered one of the highest costly burden diseases. Recently, the number is expected to increase to about 115.4 million geriatric dementia by 2050 due to AD with abnormal accretion of phosphorylated tau and β-amyloid proteins in neuronal milie. Recently, acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEIs) and Non-competitive N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonists are the only FDA-approved drugs for AD management.

For centuries, spices have been consumed as food additives or medicinal agents. Moreover, many reports showed the importance of plant-based foods in a regular diet as they can help lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Saffron contains many volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, including safranal, which is responsible for saffron aroma. It contains crocins, crocetin, and safranal, the main active constituents. Previous results showed that crocin can inhibit neuronal death, significantly protecting against cerebral ischemia and enhancing long-term learning and memory in rats. However, due to the limited production, and intensive harvesting process, saffron is extremely expensive and highly liable to adulteration.

Several plants are used as a natural adulteration of saffron, such as gardenia fruits, safflower, and corn silk. Unfortunately, extraneous substances such as horse hair, shredded paper, or vegetable oil increase the net weight. Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) is the most reliable herbal drug characterization and authentication method, as it can efficiently identify secondary metabolites within a complex matrix (Salem et al., 2020). Other non-targeted approaches such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), gas chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry (GC-MS), matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) mass spectrometry, ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy (UV–vis), near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy have also been applied for saffron authentication, fraudulence and adulteration detection. Chromatography-based-MS allows for the analysis of hundreds of metabolites from most organic classes. However, the study is destructive. In contrast, NMR is powerful in structural elucidation, allowing the identification of novel compounds, and the analysis is non-destructive. However, NMR has less sensitivity than MS. Besides MS and NMR, non-destructive physical methods such as UV–vis and NIR spectroscopy can also be quick, cheap, and easy to use to identify functional groups in specific metabolites. A combination of the methods above may provide complementary information for in-depth analysis. Chemometrics, specifically multivariate analysis such as principal component analysis (PCA) and orthogonal projections to latent structures–discriminant analysis (OPLS-DA), provide powerful tools in studying chromatographic data applied in non-targeted approaches to assess herbal drug authenticity.

In this context, the evaluation of saffron quality, especially the Iranian one, was mainly based on the apparent characteristics of samples, despite the impressive studies established for saffron metabolites, morphological and genetic diversity. However, most reports need accurate data on the robust evaluation of the commercial saffron products already sold in markets and affected consumer health. One recent study highlighted identifying already added common adulterants without focusing on the development in the market. Therefore, to meet the continuous demand for saffron, the current study aimed to provide non-target metabolites identification utilizing high-resolution mass spectrometry coupled with chemometric analysis and to establish the discrimination of different traded saffron. For the first time, the acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity of saffron was correlated with its genuineness. The impact of contaminants on the biological activity of saffron as a neuroprotective agent was linked and discussed within the context of chemical composition.

Saffron adulteration is a serious problem that many people may not be aware of. It is common among some unethical traders to mix pure saffron with other substances to increase their profits. Fortunately, there is now a way to detect saffron adulteration with confidence. We can uncover the secret world of saffron adulteration detection thanks to recent technological advancements.

This breakthrough technology is a game-changer for anyone who uses saffron in their cooking or products. With this new detection method, you can be sure that the saffron you are using is pure and safe. You no longer have to worry about the potential health risks associated with adulterated saffron.

The process is quick and easy. Please send a sample of your Saffron to our state-of-the-art Flonita Saffron laboratory, and our expert team will analyze it using the latest detection technology. Within a few days, you will receive a detailed report on the purity of your saffron.

Our advanced detection technology ensures you are using only the best and purest saffron. Say goodbye to saffron adulteration and hello to safe, delicious, and authentic  Flonita saffron.

Younis IY, Mohsen E, Ibrahim RM, Fernie AR, Alseekh S, Salem MA. Non-targeted metabolomics and chemometrics for saffron (Crocus sativus L.) authentication and adulteration detection in relation to its anticholinesterase activity. Food Chemistry Advances. 2023 Oct 1;2:100217.

Edited by Mrs. Khamooshi

Hamed Biglari

Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Engineering in Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Razavi Khorasan, Iran

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