By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
A pinch of black pepper is perfect for making any dish tastier and livelier. Black pepper is on everyone’s table.
Black pepper is so important it was once used as currency, and as a sacred offering to the gods. And today black pepper seems to be so powerful, it can actually cure certain health conditions and even affect how some drugs work.
In fact, black pepper could be seen more as a medicine than a simple spice. Not convinced? Here’s why black pepper is a powerful kitchen condiment.
What Is Black Pepper?
The pepper plant, a tropical plant that grows up to 22 feet high, produces small white flowers that develop into berries which we know as peppercorns.
Black pepper, green pepper and white pepper are actually from the same plant. These peppers are a different color as they are harvested at different times and using different processes.
Black peppercorns are picked when they are half ripe and are left to shrivel in the sun to become a dark brown or black color.
A Short History of Black Pepper
Pepper has had a long and illustrious past as a prized spice.
Pepper is native to Southeast Asia and South Asia and it has been used in Indian cooking since 2000 BC.
Black peppercorns were found inside the nostrils of Ramses II in ancient Egypt, stuffed there as part of the important mummification rituals.
In ancient Greece, pepper was so important that it was used as a form of currency to pay taxes and ransoms, and as an offering to the gods. In Roman times the spice was a favorite seasoning in the homes of wealthy citizens.
During the Middle Ages, wealth was often measured by the size of someone’s pepper stockpile and pepper was the main spice to drive the trade routes around the world.
What’s So Good About Black Pepper for Health?
An active component in black pepper called piperine is responsible for many of the reported health benefits of this spice. It also helps to give pepper its characteristic spicy taste.
Did you know that black pepper is almost like a multivitamin. Black pepper contains good levels of iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, calcium, zinc, chromium, and vitamins A and C.
We looked at recent scientific evidence that shows black pepper has clear medicinal benefits. Here are a few reasons why black pepper is a potent spice.
1. Black Pepper Promotes Digestion and Intestinal Health
Black pepper has been used for centuries as a digestive aid.
Various studies, like a 2007 study from the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, India, have linked black pepper to improved digestion.
Components in black pepper stimulate the taste buds and alert the stomach to increase its hydrochloric acid secretion, improving digestion.
Once digestion is improved, health problems like constipation, diarrhea and colic are less likely.
Black pepper helps prevent the formation of intestinal gas – it is a carminative, which means it pushes gas out of the body in a positive downwards motion and inhibits more gas from forming.
2. Black Pepper Helps Fight Fat
Did you know that eating black pepper could actually help you lose weight?
The outer layer of the black peppercorn helps to break down fat cells in the body.
Black pepper is therefore helpful for weight loss because when the fact cells are broken down they are more easily processed and expelled by the body.
A 2012 study from Sejong University, Seoul in Korea demonstrates that piperine in black pepper also plays another important role in preventing weight gain.
Piperine actually can also block the formation of new fat cells. The study used a computer model and laboratory tests to see how piperine interferes with the activity of genes that control how fat cells develop.
3. Black Pepper Boosts Skin Health
It seems that medicinal black pepper can even help to cure vitiligo, a skin disease suffered by the late "King of Pop" Michael Jackson and others that causes patches of skin to lose pigmentation.
According to a 2008 study from King's College London in the UK, piperine in black pepper stimulates the skin to produce pigment.
When topical treatment with piperine is combined with ultraviolet light treatment, results are much better than with UV light alone for treating vitiligo.
4. The Antioxidant Potential of Black Pepper
Black pepper shows much promise as an antioxidant and experts believe that it can actually help to repair the damage done by free radicals and can help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Studies such as a 2016 report from Sichuan University, Chengdu , China have analyzed and confirmed the rich antioxidant properties of black pepper.
5. Black Pepper and Curcumin Can Help Treat Diabetes?
A 2016 study by Kaur G, Invally M, and Chintamaneni M shows that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has a significant medical value against disorders like diabetes but there is a problem with its "bioavailability". What this means is that you could eat a lot of curcumin but it may nit do you any good because only a small fraction of it would ever reach your blood stream.
But adding black pepper does the trick. Combining curcumin with piperine and quercetin, according to the authors, helps to enhance the antidiabetic potential of the spices.
Supplementation with the spices helped reduce plasma glucose at the end of 28 days, and reduced LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, compared with curcumin alone.
6. Black Pepper Enhances Bioavailability
Talking about bioavailability, black pepper increases the "bioavailability" of many spices and drugs as well as curcumin.
Black pepper helps transport the benefits of herbs and spices, and drugs, to different parts of the body.
A 2016 study by CSIR-Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, India shows that black pepper and ginger help increase the bioavailability of iron and zinc.
In terms of drugs, a 2010 study by Chosun University in Dong-Gu, Korea shows how piperine in black pepper increases absorption of fexofenadine.
And a 2016 study from Kakatiya University, Warangal, India shows that black pepper also increases the bioavailability of diclofenac in healthy volunteers.
It is clearly a powerful substance.
7. Can Black Pepper Help Improve Cognitive Impairment and Neurological Health?
Piperine in black pepper has been shown to help reduce memory impairment associated with aging, and has been touted as a possible solution to problems like Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2009 study from Khon Kaen University in Thailand demonstrates how piperine protects against neurodegeneration and cognitive impairment.
The research was based on a study of rats who were given piperine at various doses and examined.
The scientists discovered that piperine at all dosages significantly improved memory impairment and neurodegeneration in the brain.
The antioxidant powers of piperine are thought to be the cause.