Spices: Saffron is most expensive, taking thyme to explore worthwhile

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.

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Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and saffron are perhaps not quite as poetic as the Simon and Garfunkel version, but saffron does have the distinction of being the most expensive spice in the world so it should be worthy of a song. Saffron is labor intensive; it takes about 70,000 flowers to produce five pounds of stigmas, and when dried that turns into about one pound of saffron, which explains how the price per pound can reach almost $2,000.

Spices come from bark, buds, fruit, roots and seeds of various pants and trees and were originally used not just to enhance the flavor of food but also to preserve it.

Spices had great monetary value back in the Middle Ages; a pound of peppercorns could buy freedom for a serf. They were used in religious ceremonies, to crown emperors and to bury with the dead. They were and still are being used for their medicinal value, and every day we learn more about the potential benefits they may offer, such as turmeric. Research shows that it increases the antioxidant capacity of the body, reduces inflammation as well as improving brain function. Ginger helps digestive problems and can fight arthritis pain, and cinnamon can help stabilize blood sugar. But be careful when shopping for cinnamon, over 90 percent of what we see in the grocery store is cassia, a relative of cinnamon. The only true cinnamon is Ceylon cinnamon and is native to Sri Lanka, and, yes, it does taste different.

According to the USDA, the United States imports and consumes more spices than any other nation. Our spice consumption has nearly tripled over the past half century, most likely in the attempt to quell our use of too much salt. As you might have guessed, pepper is the most popular spice in the country followed by cumin, a key component in chili powder and curry. It turns out that cumin not only adds flair to any dish it also packs vitamins A, C, E, as well as many essential minerals. There are hundreds of spices in the world that offer a wide range of flavors and aromas.

Do yourself a favor and take the thyme to explore the exciting world of spices.