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What would make saffron (or something) color pink, instead of the more usual yellows and oranges that saffron is known for?

I had, a while ago, picked up a container of saffron from an ethnic store. On reflection, it didn't look like it was too high quality (the color was a bit pale and I could see a few yellow ends), and it smelled like saffron does when I checked, maybe a bit mild or weak. I didn't mind too much because it was also relatively inexpensive, and I figured it would still be worth it to use up the container in some experimental recipes.

A couple days ago, I was making some rice, and randomly decided to season it with saffron - when I dropped the strands in the heating water, they looked like the color coming off them was a bit dark, reddish - but I wasn't sure, maybe it was the lighting. By the time the rice was done, I was certain - the saffron had colored the rice pink, not yellow as I expected. I have seen saffron color orange, in high concentrations, and of course it looks red still as threads - but I have never seen it color pink. I didn't notice this when using the saffron previously, but then again I only used it once or twice, in complex dishes with many colors - the pink might not have showed up clearly, especially if I wasn't looking for it, while white rice doesn't have a lot of distractions.

So, my question is, is there any reasonable guess as to why the threads gave off a pink color? I'm thinking either they were dyed (or treated somehow) so that the color looked darker than it was, or else it wasn't saffron at all. I am aware of safflower and its frequent confusion with saffron - this was not a mere labeling error - but even safflower gives a yellow color, from my understanding (if it can be substituted for color purposes at all, as I have read).

I especially want to know what might have caused the color change because I want to know what I can do with what I've got left in the box - if it is the result of potentially toxic dyes, I would want to treat it rather differently than if it was some merely fraudulent but nontoxic treatment or substitution.

The first pic is the saffron that's been colored. Second pic is some good saffron I had on hand, for comparison.

enter image description hereenter image description here

  • This ethnic store didn't happen to be Chinese did it? – Chloe Oct 8 '16 at 5:05
  • @Chloe - it was an unspecific oriental store, so they had Chinese stuff, but also some Indian, middle eastern, all of that - it was a very small store, but the only one in town so it had whatever they thought would sell. The saffron was marketed as Iranian, if that helps? Is there a known issue with saffron from Chinese stores? – Megha Oct 8 '16 at 11:52
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    Perhaps the macro shot is throwing me off but that looks like a hell of a lot of saffron? What's the weight of that and are you sure the bottom pic is true saffron? – user25798 Oct 8 '16 at 13:08
  • @Lilienthal - It's a gram, the box is a gram's worth, it looks like more because the photo is close up, and the saffron was kinda fluffed up and teased out for a better pic. Its actually a pretty thin layer, not much depth to it. The bottom picture is saffron I'm quite sure of, not only is the scent correct and very strong, I've used it before and it colors, tastes and behaves identically to the high-quality saffron my parents have from Turkey. – Megha Oct 8 '16 at 13:26
  • @Megha Ah ok that's fine then, I just got confused from the close-up. – user25798 Oct 8 '16 at 13:48
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So, my question is, is there any reasonable guess as to why the threads gave off a pink color?

Yes. It's fake. I've had family bring over the exact same thing from Turkey a few years ago: entire bags of "saffron threads" that turned everything they touched pink. It's a known fake product in the Middle East region. The fact that you bought it in an ethnic store is worrying though: I'd expect to find unlabelled safflower there but not dyed threads.

I want to know what I can do with what I've got left in the box

Throw it out. Even ignoring the possibility you raise that the dye used to create it isn't food-safe, fake saffron isn't useful for anything. In your case, I'd take it back to the shop and demand a refund.


Fake versus Real

Here are some general tips to follow when you're buying saffron:

  • only the threads matter: the yellow stamens are useless and only add bulk, which is a sign that something's wrong
  • the scent can't be faked and is unmistakable provided you've smelled real saffron before, however most people are fooled by vendors mixing in threads of the real stuff (adulteration)
  • it has a characteristic taste (that's highly individual), but will never be sweet
  • it's a deep yellow to orange hue: saffron should never create a pink colour, though the threads themselves are such a deep orange colour that they can appear red
  • said colour will appear in liquids but will not fade from the threads, putting a strand on a wet paper towel is an effective colour test
  • the threads will not dissolve but can (and should) be crushed into powder, they also have a distinct texture and feel
  • it's hideously expensive: even if you personally know a producer/trader or buy in bulk (i.e. tens of thousands of strands), the wholesale price is still incredibly high (more on this below)

Note that the checks mentioned can all be invalidated in different ways and most simply by the seller pulling a bait-and-switch. As a rule, don't buy saffron as a tourist unless you've done your homework on the seller and product.

A quick note on price. Saffron is famous for being more expensive than gold per weight (in retail quantities) and the reason for that is its incredibly costly production process. More than a hundred crocus flowers go into producing a measly gram and the threads need to be harvested by hand. This coupled with the consistent and high demand means that there is simply no incentive for anyone to sell below market value and that's especially true for retail quantities. The retail markup is significant though, especially given the high base price, and avoiding some of it by buying online or at specialty stores can indeed save you a lot, but your average cook or chef is never going to be buying this for 50% off.


Saffron versus Safflower

Safflower is often sold as "Turkish saffron" and some claim it's a substitute but that's just not the case. While safflower does add colour, turmeric does a better job of colouring food yellow without requiring you to filter out chewy threads later. Safflower adds no noticeable taste to food. Saffron simply cannot be substituted, largely because of the complexity of its aroma (which includes over a hundred compounds). There is no artificial or synthetic saffron for the same reason.

  • Not sure that even buying in bulk would help with costs because there's little to no ability to automate the labor needed to harvest the threads from crocus flowers, is there? – PoloHoleSet Oct 7 '16 at 12:35
  • @AndrewMattson Yes, saffron's production costs are what drives its high base price but there's still significant overhead in the final supply chain. Every link in that chain has to turn a profit so adds a few percent and that can add up in a product with such a high base price. The only way to cut out those final links is to buy online or from higher up the chain, which by definition means buying bulk quantities. Caveat emptor applies to both of course. – user25798 Oct 7 '16 at 12:59
  • Perhaps I should have been more specific that one wouldn't see a "dramatic" change in price because it's so manually intensive to collect the threads, greatly skewing the proportion of the costs that go into original production. I'm glad a little goes a long way in flavoring foods, that's for sure! – PoloHoleSet Oct 7 '16 at 13:07
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    +1. This answer quite possibly more than doubled my knowledge about saffron. Well done, well done. – Willem van Rumpt Oct 7 '16 at 14:48
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    +1, very nice. I am 400 meters away from this now: shutterstock.com/pic-146971382/… and a thing harvested like this can't be cheap. – Rmano Oct 8 '16 at 14:31
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Interesting question. I have never experienced it myself, but I took a littlelook around to see if the answer was floating around somewhere.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as this quote from Wikipedia suggests?

Despite attempts at quality control and standardisation, an extensive history of saffron adulteration, particularly among the cheapest grades, continues into modern times. Adulteration was first documented in Europe's Middle Ages, when those found selling adulterated saffron were executed under the Safranschou code.[35] Typical methods include mixing in extraneous substances like beetroot, pomegranate fibres, red-dyed silk fibres, or the saffron crocus's tasteless and odourless yellow stamens. Other methods included dousing saffron fibres with viscid substances like honey or vegetable oil to increase their weight. However, powdered saffron is more prone to adulteration, with turmeric, paprika, and other powders used as diluting fillers. Adulteration can also consist of selling mislabelled mixes of different saffron grades. Thus, in India, high-grade Kashmiri saffron is often sold and mixed with cheaper Iranian imports; these mixes are then marketed as pure Kashmiri saffron, a development that has cost Kashmiri growers much of their income.

Especially the coloration of the saffron with beetroot might offer a plausible explanation for your pink rice.

  • Huh... I suspect you might be right. Beetroot would give the right color for both the almost maroon of the darkest of the dried strands, and the pinkish color it gave to the rice. Possibly to darken a weak color or cover up a percentage of yellow stamens. I'll check and see if there's maybe a bit of beet scent to the strands - though since they must have some saffron in there to have that scent, too, it might be hard to pick out. – Megha Oct 8 '16 at 17:25
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Easy: it wasn't saffron. Saffron are the stemen of crocus flowers, collected by hand. It's very expensive, and anything expensive will always have cheap knock-offs. A very common one is dyed safflower, which looks close but isn't any sort of substitute. Dyed corn silk, shredded onion skin, and other things are used. Basically if it's cheap it is almost certainly fake. Even if it's expensive it can also be fake.

The best way to identify fake saffron is to smell it. Saffron is very distinctive, the counterfeits probably have no smell at all. If you can get a small sample, even just a single strand, put it on the palm of your hand, then wet your finger and crush the saffron against your palm. You should get a very vivid patch of yellow-orange which is also hard to copy.

  • No, saffron does not derive from the stamen of the plant, but rather primarily from the red stigma which sit atop the yellow style (which is sometimes debatably included). The yellow stamen is of no use at all. – tchrist Jul 14 '18 at 20:47
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As a person who is in the business for Saffron, I could tell it is fake just by looking at it. It seems like real Saffron is mixed with something else, most probably colored corn threads (from what it looks like in the picture).

Please buy from a trusted store. Saffron is an expensive product, it cannot be cheap. if you find a store selling it cheap, that should be a red flag!

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