Next time you spoon mouthfuls of delicious yoghurt or ice cream into your mouth, it may be worth pausing to reflect on the tiny black specks that may well fleck the stuff you are eating.
A spice that comes from pods with the appearance of dehydrated earthworms is more valuable than the shiny, precious metal once prized by pirates
These minuscule dots are seeds scraped from the dried and cured beans of three species of vanilla orchids that grow in low-lying tropical areas of the world. They impart their rich, sweet flavour to cakes, custards, chocolates and desserts. And they are worth more than their weight in silver.
You read that correctly. A spice that comes from pods with the appearance of dehydrated earthworms is more valuable than the shiny, precious metal once prized by pirates and now widely used in jewellery, electronics and medical devices.
The price of vanilla has hit a record high of $600 (£445) per kilogram for the second time since 2017 when a cyclone damaged many of the plantations in Madagascar, where three quarters of the world’s vanilla is grown. Silver by comparison currently costs $538/kg.
Demand for vanilla has kept the prices high, leading some ice cream manufacturers to cut back and even halt production of the flavour, sparking fears of shortages over the summer.
But vanilla is not the only surprising everyday item that is worth more, gram for gram, than silver. Here are some unexpected things that are more valuable than this precious metal.
Cut by hand just six spindely strands at a time from individual crocus flowers, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.
It takes around 150,000 flowers to yield just one kilogram of the delicate, golden-coloured stigma threads that are so treasured by chefs. The hours of careful, intricate work by the pickers, along with the time it takes to dry and ferment the saffron, drive up the price.
Saffron can sell in shops for anything between $5 and $25 for a single gram, depending on where it is from. Some estimates put the average market price at somewhere between $2,000 and $15,000/kg.
“Saffron requires a delicate touch when harvesting - it is a skillful job and has to be done by hand,” explains Arun Kapil, a spice expert and founder of Irish spice importer Green Saffron. “But saffron adds a touch of gold to anything that it touches in my mind.”
There is also growing evidence that saffron can help alleviate depression, protect the retina in our eyes and tackle obesity.
It is little wonder that some people are prepared to adulterate and even sell fake saffron, swapping the flower stigmas for strands of dyed silk, threads of beetroot or parts of other flowers. In one recent analysis up to half the saffron tested was fraudulent, while the volume of saffron exported from Spain far outweighs the official production levels.
Each of us has between 9 and 12 pints of blood pumping around our bodies. It is vital stuff - losing just three or four pints will kill us. So our own blood is pretty valuable, but what if you wanted to buy someone else’s?
A unit of human blood - slightly less than a pint - can cost as much as $375 depending on which country you are buying it in. This works out at $833/kg - around 54% higher than the price of silver.
If you want to buy a particular cell type, the price can be lower - in the UK it costs £124 ($167) for a unit of standard red blood cells – about £275/kg ($370). But for cells that have been frozen, stored, thawed and then washed, the price soars to nearly £800 ($1,080) for a unit - about £1,780/kg ($2,400), nearly four and a half times the price of silver.
A shortage of blood donors, together with the myriad of tests that must now be conducted before patients can receive transfusions, have driven up the costs.
But for those whose lives have been saved by a blood transfusion, this is probably a small price to pay.
“The real value is in what it can do for patients,” says Professor David Roberts, a consultant haematologist at NHS Blood and Transplant. “It is not just vital for accidents and emergencies. Blood transfusions can also keep people alive for long enough so they can say goodbye to their loved ones.
“It is hard to put a price on that."
Anyone who has bought a latte in London or an Americano in New York recently will know that coffee can be mind-blowingly expensive. Sometimes an uninspiring $4 cup just doesn’t seem worth it.
But not all coffee is created equally. Some kinds are worth more than their weight in silver.
Kopi luwak, also known as civet coffee, is produced by collecting the faeces from Asian palm civet cats in Indonesia that have feasted on coffee cherries. The indigestible beans ferment as they pass through the animal’s gut, giving them a unique, sweet taste when roasted and brewed.
It can cost up to $660/kg if collected from the droppings of wild civets.
To make matters worse, some coffee experts even claim that despite its high price, kopi luwak isn’t any better than a good cup of ordinary coffee
Demand for this coffee, however, has raised concern among animal rights campaigners. Even the man who introduced it to Western markets, Tony Wild, is petitioning for the trade to stop due to concerns over illegal poaching of civet cats and the conditions they are kept in by unscrupulous farmers trying to cash in on the high price of kopi luwak.
To make matters worse, some coffee experts even claim that despite its high price, kopi luwak isn’t any better than a good cup of ordinary coffee.
But despite its inflated price, kopi luwak is far from being the most expensive coffee around. That accolade goes to Black Ivory Coffee from Thailand, where the beans have passed through the stomachs of Asian elephants. A kilogram will set you back $1,800.
Tea drinkers can also enjoy a wallet-lightening brew too. Da Hong Pao tea is a dark Oolong tea that is grown in the rocky soil of the Wuyi Mountains of northern Fujian, China. It comes from just a handful of bushes that apparently date back up to 350 years, although cuttings taken from these plants have led to younger and cheaper varieties.
In 2002, 20g of Da Hong Pao tea sold for almost $28,250, meaning a kilogram would fetch more than $1.4m - more than 33 times the price of gold, which currently sells for around $41,500/kg.
With the last harvest from these trees occurring in 2005 and no more likely in the future, the few grams of original Da Hong Pao being hoarded by collectors will only now go up in value.
Money cannot buy you love, according to the cliche, but it can buy you a brief moment of happiness – at least if you are using it to buy a certain little blue pill.
Viagra was initially developed in 1989 by scientists at drug company Pfizer to treat high blood pressure and angina, but during testing they noticed some unusual side-effects. Nine years later the drug was licensed for the treatment of erectile dysfunction in men and it quickly became one of the company’s biggest revenue streams, peaking at $2bn in 2012.
At the start of this year Pfizer announced that it was increasing the price of its blue Viagra pills in the US by up to 39% compared to January 2017, according to reports in The Financial Times, a 100mg tablet jumped from $57.94 to $80.82.
The company has now started to produce a cheaper generic version of the drug, which is sold as a white pill, after signing a deal to let other companies produce their own Viagra copycat drugs. But it is clearly still banking on customers wanting the original blue pill.
Of course, Viagra is far from being the most expensive drug available – some treatments for rare genetic conditions can cost tens of thousands for just a month’s supply of tablets. One drug used to treat the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis costs $750 for a single pill (though this price hike provoked outrage).
Drug companies producing these expensive pills argue the price is necessary to cover the huge investment they make in researching, developing and trialling these drugs before they come to market.
Cold sore cream
While prescription drugs can fetch high prices, there are some medicines available over the counter that are also surprisingly valuable.
In an article published in the Journal of Dermatology, dermatologists at the University of Texas at Austin highlighted the soaring costs of topical medicines. They compared the prices of the medicines to luxury items like iPhones and gold, and got some unexpected results.
Take Zovirax, a cream used to fight the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores. Buying a 2g tube in the UK costs £4.99 ($6.75), meaning it would cost $3,375/kg.
The researchers at the University of Texas found that due to the peculiarities of the health insurance system in the US driving up the cost of drugs, the price of prescribing Zovirax to patients rose from $22/g in 2007 to $168/gram in 2015. That means a kilogram of the cream in the US would cost a whopping $168,000 - four times the price of gold.
It seems the price has come down since then, with it now costing around $48,000/kg. There are also generic brands available that are substantially cheaper but one rival brand called Xerese appears to be even more expensive still – the researchers found it would cost $248,000/kg in 2015.
According to Dayna Diven and her colleagues at the University of Texas who wrote the article, medicines often used to treat relatively mild infections are “skyrocketing past many of the items that are deemed to be of great worth by society”.
Beauty is also big business – globally the cosmetics market is worth more than $532bn a year as consumers try to hold back time with tiny tubs of cream, moisturiser, cosmetics and hair products. While most of the products will leave a dent in your wallet, there are some that will gouge out more of a crater.
Take the famously expensive Creme de la Mer for example – a single 30ml pot can cost $162 while a 500ml tub will set you back $2,057. Originally made from a broth of fermented sea kelp, the final formulation of this moisturiser is a closely guarded secret.
While it’s not clear what volume of this nutrient-rich formula would weigh a kilogram, a 500ml pot, including packaging, comes in at about 450g. This would mean that it is about six times more valuable than silver.
Yet even this famous cream is dwarfed by the price of another moisturiser called RéVive
Intensité Crème Lustre, which fetches $385 for just 48g. This would mean a kilogram would cost $7,988.
“The advanced technology and extensive scientific research is why the products have a luxury price point,” insist RéVive.
It may be time to think carefully about how often you use the humble ink jet printer sitting beside your computer. While the hardware itself can often be picked up at what seem like bargain prices, it is the ink used that has the real value for manufacturers.
Replacement printer ink cartridges can cost between $8 and $27, depending on the type of printer you have. A single black ink jet cartridge from one major manufacturer can cost $23 for just 4ml of ink - enough to print around 200 pages.
Manufacturers argue they need to charge this to cover the loss they are selling the printer hardware at, together with the research and development they do on ink technology. But cut open an ink cartridge and you will see that most of the space inside is taken up with sponge, designed to help preserve and deliver the ink.
And when you are paying what works out to be around $1,733/kg of ink, you might be better off printing with pure silver instead.
If you have been bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion, the cost of the antidote that will save your life will probably not mean all that much to you as you rush to get treated.
But anti-venom might just be some of the most expensive liquid in the world. A single vial of the stuff can cost between $7,900 and $39,000 in some parts of the US. Until recently a vial of anti-venom to treat a pit viper bite would cost up to $57,000.
A single vial contains around 10ml of anti-venom. Making it is both difficult and dangerous – snakes and scorpions need to be milked for their venom, which is then injected into an animal like a sheep or horse so their antibodies can be harvested.
Demand for anti-venom is also relatively small. Around 7,000-8,000 people are bitten by snakes in the US annually, but in other parts of the world like Africa and South America, the numbers are far higher.
Yet none of these things can account for the high price of anti-venom, according to analysis by Leslie Boyer, founding director of the VIPER Institute at the University of Arizona which helps to develop new anti-venom serums.
She found that for a vial of anti-venom costing $14,000 in the US, it cost just $14 to make – equivalent to 0.1% of the final cost. Clinical trials, legal fees, licensing and regulatory fees add to the cost, but she found the largest proportion of the cost were charges added by hospitals due to “idiosyncrasies of the US healthcare finance system”.
Taking even the rather conservative $14,000 per vial studied by Boyer, this would mean that – assuming the serum weighs much the same as water – a kilogram of anti-venom would cost $1.4m, 2,600 times the price of silver gram for gram.
Given that in some serious cases of snakebite it can take several vials of anti-venom to treat a patient, it certainly pays to be careful when in areas populated by venomous animals.
This story was amended on June 1 to remove a statistic on the cost of Viagra pills.
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