Black pepper is included in pretty much every recipe you will find (maybe not in some desserts though!). So is it just the flavour enhancement that black pepper provides or is there something more to it?
This spice is native to India and is obtained from a flowering vine from the Piperaceae family. There are a number of different types of pepper, including black, white and green.
This article is going to focus on black pepper, where the immature drupe from the flowering plant, is then cooked and dried to produce what we know as the black peppercorn. In some cases, the process of cooking may be skipped and the immature drupe will just be dried. This is then ready to be used within recipes.
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is one of the oldest spices in the world, as well as being highly popular. It has been used as both currency and as a sacrificial offering to the gods - as you can probably guess, black pepper wasn’t always as readily available as it is today!
Black pepper was found in Ramessess II’s nostrils as part of his mummification process. It wasn’t black pepper that was popular during the Roman era between the 4th and 5th century, in fact it was long pepper which was seen as more valuable. Long pepper was known to be hotter and, therefore, was associated with being more potent for its medicinal properties, including increasing virility and reducing phlegm. As this spice became so popular, demands increased and black pepper came into the picture as a cheaper alternative to long pepper (Timeline, 2015).
Attila the Hun was paid a ransom in peppercorns and other spices, to prevent his group attacking a hostage Rome in the 5th Century (Timeline, 2015). Peppercorn was also used to pay for rent in Europe and Germany and even used as a form of currency!
Due to the trade route which pepper was taken from the Malabar coast, India to the Mediterranean and then to the rest of Europe, pepper was tightly controlled and price increases from the middle men involved were included, which lead to the rising price of pepper.
Peppercorns are now not only grown in Malabar, they are also grown in South East Asia (including Cambodia, which now has a huge peppercorn industry based on the Kampot pepper), Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brazil.
As well as being used within cooking, currency and ransom payments, pepper has been used for preservation, within perfumery and has been associated with and used within traditional medicine. It is used within Ayurvedic, Chinese and Unani medicines, as well as other traditional medicines. It was used in conjunction with other medicinal products to treat and cure, constipation, aid digestion, liver problems, tooth decay, heart disease, ear aches, and diarrhoea to name a few!
Black pepper is believed to stimulate and increase secretion throughout the digestive tract.
The first place to be impacted by black pepper is in the mouth, where it has been found to increase salivary secretion. When we produce saliva we also release an enzyme called amylase which begins the initial breakdown of starches into sugars (Srinivasan, 2007).
It also is believed to increase the secretion of hydrochloric acid into the stomach, where we begin to break down food into smaller more absorbable amounts. This releases an enzyme which is involved in the breakdown of protein. The acidic pH level of the acid, allows the enzyme to be activated to enable it to break down the protein. It also helps to destroy bacteria that could be present in the food and drinks we consume and it releases something called intrinsic factor, this is needed to allow us to absorb vitamin B12.
It has been found in animal studies that when they are subjected to dietary intake of black pepper, it increases the activity of pancreatic lipase which breaks down fat, and it also increases trypsin an enzyme involved in the breakdown of proteins (Srinivasan, 2007).
Black pepper is a diaphoretic, meaning that it promotes sweating. When consumed, black pepper has a thermogenic effect by increasing our body heat. When we consume food, our body uses energy to digest and absorb food, this is known as diet induced thermogenesis. It is believed that black pepper and certain other food increase this thermogenic effect even more, and therefore believed to burn more calories. However this has been debated (Westerterp-Plantenga et al., 2006. and Gregersen et al., 2013).
It can also act as a diuretic so it promotes urination and, therefore, it helps to flush out toxins within the body.
From another article I wrote, I mentioned how black pepper contains a compound called piperine, which helps our body to be able to absorb more nutrients including curcumin in turmeric, which is where some of the benefits from turmeric are contained. You can read that blog here. It is also this compound which gives black pepper its pungent taste.
It has been found that when piperine is consumed, it increases the bioavailability of nutrients which we have consumed. This means that we are able to absorb and utilise more of the nutrients, which may not have been absorbed and therefore excreted out as waste. For instance, in turmeric the compound curcumin found within it, can quickly be metabolised and therefore the body cannot utilise it. With the addition of black pepper (and therefore piperine) it increases the amount of time it spends in our body and allows an increase in absorption, whilst stopping the enzymes which break down and metabolise the curcumin (Ajazuddin et al., 2014).
It is not just curcumin which has been found to have an increase in absorption, but also beta-carotene (this gives yellow and orange fruits its colour and is converted into vitamin A), when combined with piperine.
A study showed that this lead to an increase in serum beta-carotene, versus those who had taken beta-carotene with a placebo (Badmaev et al., 1999). It appears that piperine has the ability to increase either the rate of absorption in the gastrointestinal tract, or by preventing a drug or nutrient getting metabolised too quickly (Atal et al., 1981. And Platel and Srinivasan, 2016).
Piperine has also been associated with having antioxidant effects, whereby it protects cells from oxidative damage. Oxidative damage has been linked to an increase in atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries).
In controlled, laboratory-based experiences known as in vitro, piperine has been found to help protect cells from oxidative damage, including in potentially playing a role in the preventative application of atherosclerosis (Srinivasan, 2007. and Wang et al., 2016).
Other studies' results have suggested that black pepper and other hot peppers exhibit anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and potentially anticancer activities (Liu et al., 2010). Piperine has been found to inhibit inflammatory responses in cells which are involved within neuroinflammation, which may mean that it could be helping in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases (Wang-Sheng et al., 2016).
Black pepper contains:
Due to the impact that black pepper has on the inhibition on metabolising of drugs and nutrients, it is always important to be aware of any implications it may have on medications you are taking.
If you are taking medications, it is worth checking with your GP about whether black pepper will have any impact of negative consequences to your medication.
This may cause your body to be unable to get break down the drugs as quickly as usual, so may lead to an increase of the amount of drug in your body. There are a whole array of drugs which are metabolised by the liver. So, if you are taking medication that is metabolised by the liver it is worth talking to your GP.
It is also important not to inhale pepper, as this can have adverse effects and even cause death in some cases. It may also upset those with gastrointestinal problems, so do not take excess amounts.
It is best to buy peppercorns whole and then to grind them down yourself. This means that you will just be receiving peppercorns - sometimes when pepper has been pre-ground it can have additional spices added to it.
When you have peppercorns, once opened you should store them in an airtight container (could even use an old Lucy Bee Coconut Oil jar! Just make sure to clean it first) or in the pepper mill.
Pre-ground peppercorns can lose some of their potency and health benefits after a couple of months, so it’s best to buy the peppercorns whole and grind yourself when needed, since whole peppercorns last longer.
Again, as always, black pepper should be integrated into a healthy balanced diet.
It is possible to gain the benefits of pepper through the consumption of pepper itself, so there is no need to take supplements. If you are considering supplementation I would strongly recommend that you go talk to your GP, or a nutritionist, or dietician to check whether you should, but really it is not necessary to take large quantities of pepper.
Black pepper is a great addition to your diet, through flavouring foods, and we usually all have it already on our table, next to the salt!
It is always important to note, that research is research and we're all different. Black pepper may not always have the same effect on everyone, so it’s worth noting that it is not a cure, rather that this information is just for you to have, so that you know why we use pepper so much and what health benefits it may have!
Ajazuddin. Alexander, A. Qureshi, A. Kumari, L. Vaishnav, P. Sharma, M. Saraf, S. and Saraf, S. (2014). Role of herbal bioactives as a potential bioavailability enhancer for active pharmaceutical ingredients. Fitoterapia, 97, pp. 1-14. Available here.
Atal, CK. Zutshi, U. and Rao, PG. (1981). Scientific evidence on the role of Ayurvedic herbals on bioavailability of drugs. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 4(2), pp. 229-232. Available here.
Badmaev, V. Majeed, M. and Norkus, EP. (1999). Piperine, an alkaloid derived from black pepper increases serum response of beta-carotene during 14-days of oral beta-carotene supplementation. Nutrition Research, 19(3), pp. 381-388. Available here.
Gregersen, NT. Belza, A. Jensen, MG. Ritz, C. Bitz, C. Hels, O. Frandsen, E. Mela, DJ. and Astrup, A. (2013). Acute effects of mustard, horseradish, black pepper and ginger on energy expenditure, appetite, ad libitum energy intake and energy balance in human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 109(3), pp. 556-563. Available here.
Lui, Y. Yadev, VR. Aggarwal, BB. and Nair, MG. (2010). Inhibitory effects of black pepper (Piper nigrum) extracts and compounds on human tumor cells proliferation, cyclooxygenase enzymes, lipid peroxidation and nuclear transcription factor-kappa-B. Natural Product Communications, 5(8), pp. 1253-1257. Available here.
Platel, K. and Srinivasan, K. (2016). Bioavailability of micronutrients from plant foods: an update. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 56(10), pp. 1608-1619. Available here.
Srinivasan, K. (2007). Black pepper and its pungent principle-piperine: a review of diverse physiological effects. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 47(8), pp. 735-748. Available here.
Timeline. (2015). A 4,000-year history of black pepper, the spice that got global trade rolling. Timeline News in Context. Available here.
Wang, L. Palme, V. Schilcher, N. Cukaj, M. Wang, D. Ladurner, A. Heiss, EH. Stangl, H. Dirsch, VM. and Atanasov, AG. (2016). Piperine inhibits ABCA1 degradation and promotes cholesterol effluc from THP-1-derived macrophages. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. Available here.
Westerterp-Plantenga, M. Diepvens, K. Joosen, A. Bérubé-Parent, S. Tremblay, A. (2006). Metabolic effects of spices, teas, and caffeine. Physiology and Behaviour, 89(1), pp. 85-91. Available here.
Wang-Sheng, C. Jie, A. Jian-Jun, L. Lan, H. Zeng-Bao, X. and Chang-Qing, L. (2016). Pipering attenuated lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced inflammatory responses in BV2 microglia. International Immunopharmacology, 19(42), pp. 44-48. Available here.
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Daisy is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, which is Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course and is currently studying for a PgDip in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition.
Daisy has worked for an NHS funded project, the Diabetes Prevention Programme; and shadowed a nutritionist in Harley Street.
Daisy is Lucy's sister and is the Lucy Bee voice on all aspects of nutrition and its effect on the body.