Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world but it has amazing culinary and medical properties. The small crocus plant with purple flowers and three stamens is handpicked throughout the Mediterranean and India. About 150,000 flowers are needed to produce 1 kilogram of dry spice.

Saffron has been used primarily to lend a reddish-yellow coloring to butter, pastries, such as Swedish saffron bread, and confections. It also is added to bouillabaisse, Spanish paella and rice dishes like the one featured here.

Safranal, the compound found in crocus saffron, is an antioxidant, and it has been reported to inhibit cancerous cell growth. The pharmacological effects of safranal also indicate its use as an antidepressant and an anti-inflammatory compound.

According to the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Science, the essential oil in saffron stamens offers more than just color and taste.

As the most expensive source of vitamin B-2, or riboflavin, in the world, saffron is best used in small quantities. At concentrations of even 5 grams it can cause severe gastrointestinal distress.

The full benefits of this spice are just beginning to be discovered.

New research indicates that saffron has hunger-reducing properties that can aid in weight loss. When planning a low-calorie diet, include some saffron rice to minimize food cravings. In folk medicine circles, saffron is considered to be an aphrodisiac and mood enhancer.

Betty Wedman-St Louis is a licensed nutritionist and environmental health specialist in Pinellas County who has written numerous books on health and nutrition. Visit her website at‚Äč

Saffron Rice with Shrimp and ScallopsSaffron Rice with Shrimp and Scallops

1/2 cup uncooked basmati rice
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon saffron stamens
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled
1/2 pound sea scallops
1/2 cup coconut milk or coconut cream

Cook rice, water, saffron and salt together in saucepan over medium heat until rice is tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Add butter. Let stand while simmering shrimp and scallops in coconut milk until tender. Fluff rice with fork and surround with shrimp and scallops on serving platter.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 268 calories; 17g protein; 18g carbohydrates; 7g fat; 207mg sodium.