Black Pepper: More Than Just A Spice

Black peppercorns on a white background.
Black Peppercorns - read about their amazing health benefits. Photo by thanunkorn. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) remains one of the key spices and seasonings in cuisine, particularly European, Asian and American cooking. It has an extremely spicy aroma with a piquant and pungent taste. The spice was so highly valued in ancient times, the Romans would risk much to acquire it staking even then, their fortunes to fund transport of this ingredient from the islands of South-East Asia. The ancient Greeks used it as a form of currency. Its reputation was such that it helped fund the spice trade and was pivotal in development of colonial expansion.

Black pepper belongs to the Piperaceae family. It was originally sourced from Southern India but other tropical countries are now key suppliers. Vietnam is probably the largest grower and exporter. Brazil, Indonesia and of course India are the next major suppliers.

It is processed in many different ways to produce different types of pepper product. For instance, the cooked and dried unripe fruit is black pepper, the green pepper is from the dried and unripe fruit, and white pepper are the seeds from the ripened fruit of the plant.

Rather than overlook what is a highly prized spice because of its use in cooking, we examine some of its key health benefits. One property which is exciting many is its role in weight loss and management.

Uses In Traditional Medicine

Black pepper has been used in various and numerous traditional medicines, preservatives and health supplements. Ayurvedic medicine describes black pepper as one of three major herbs to be used for several prescriptions and formulations. There are 370 compound formulations listed in the Handbook of Domestic Medicines and Common Ayurvedic Remedies. In this collection, 210 recipes contain either Trikatu which means the three acrids or its individual ingredients such as black pepper, long pepper and ginger. In Ayurveda, Trikatu has been described as a major decoction useful in restoring the imbalance of Kapha, Vata and Pitta.

Componentry

The fruit bodies of pepper are the main sources of spice. The key volatiles from black pepper are limonene, α– and β– pinene, sabinene, -careen, α-phellandrene, β-caryophyllene  (Zachariah and Parthasaraty, 2008; Attokaran, 2011).   The oleoresin produced by solvent extraction from the dried powdered pepper, contains much of the aroma and pungency actives (Premi, 2000). The yields of oleoresin are as high as 15% w/w whilst the volatile oils and piperine contents are reported to be 15-27% and 35-55% w/w respectively.

Vitamins And Minerals In Black Pepper

The spice also contains vitamins A and C (ascorbic acid) flavonoids, carotenes and other anti-oxidants. These generally help remove harmful free radicals and protect the body from cancers and diseases. The best way incidentally to eat pepper so as to harness maximum benefits is to eat freshly ground pepper, and not cook it along with food.

Piperine

Piperine (1-piperoylpiperidine) is the major alkaloid in unripe black pepper and a particularly potent anti-microbial. It has many pharmacological properties covering antidiarrheal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and analgesic effects (Purseglove et al., 1980), although the majority of studies are conducted in rats. Recent evidence points towards a weight management activity too.

Ethanolic forms of black pepper oleoresin (BPO) have both a broad antimicrobial/antibacterial spectrum against Gram-positive and -negative micro-organisms which may be related to the flavonoid and phenolic componentry (Zarai et al., 2013). Postulated mechanisms of reaction include damage to membrane permeability and transport proteins (Karsha and Lakshmi, 2010).

Piperine itself is sensitive to light and oxygen. The antioxidant activity is said to ameliorate the negative effects of a high-fat diet (Naidu and Thippeswamy, 2002; Vijayakumar et al., 2004).  The burning sensation is reckoned to be activation of the heat and capsaicin stimulated vanilloid receptor TRPV1. (McNamara et al., 2005). This receptor interaction is now much studied and remains an area of intense study. Piperine readily hydrolyses to piperidine and piperinic acid, but will also photolyse to iso-chavicine which has none of the pepper pungency.

Weight Loss Supplements

Piperine is often found in supplements for weight loss management along with a host of other ingredients with similar functions. There is exciting evidence emerging which shows the molecule can alter the behaviour of adipocytes which are cells involved in fat storage and metabolism. The mechanisms focus on altering gene activity by down-regulating various receptors (Park et al., 2012) which means fat cells cannot differentiate, fat metabolism is improved along with a better redistribution of nutrients (Rupasinghe et al., 2016).

Piperine increases catecholamine secretion, especially epinephrine from the adrenal medulla in rats. The effect is similar to capsaicin found in chilli but not as effective. There is a potential benefit here in heat generation, known as thermogenesis because of the similarity of action between the two compounds.

Piperine also appears to stimulate digestive juices in the stomach. That benefit is helpful with high protein diets where muscle building is the objective and protein is a key component of the diet. Apparently it encourages secretion of hydrochloric acid in the pyloric region of the stomach although a warning has been sounded  for those with stomach ulcers.

If you eat fresh pepper, and begin to perspire, then it is helping your body to remove excess water and toxins. However, you need to control consumption – a pinch with your food in one meal is about right.

Possible Route To Preventing Forms Of Cancer

Piperine may help in the prevention of cancer. When combined with curcumin in turmeric, both compounds appear to have high efficacy against cancer cell lines.

Cold And Cough Relief

The antibacterial  benefit  has already been alluded to. It might be a useful treatment for colds and coughs. Take a teaspoon of honey with freshly crushed pepper way forward here. It certainly helps with alleviating catarrh and chest congestion. Beauticians are suggesting that it might offer mild protection against pollution from particulates, or viral infection and flu. Piperine is not an antibiotic though.

Skin Improvement

Did you know that crushed pepper is one of the best exfoliators nature has provided us? Don’t use it directly though; add a bit of honey, curd, or fresh cream to it. It also enables blood circulation, and provides the skin with more oxygen. Adding it to your food also takes care of unwarranted skin wrinkles.

Black pepper is known to help in the cure of Vitiligo, a condition where the skin loses pigmentation, and produces unsightly white patches.

Mental Health & Depression

Piperine is known to stimulate the brain and there are traditional uses for it in treating depression. It is an area of clinical investigation which deserves further study.

Use Of Black Pepper

Store it well

To take maximum advantage of the benefits of black pepper, it’s important that you store it in the best way possible. It’s recommended that you buy whole peppercorn and crush it at home with a mill. This not only ensures the spice retains its flavour, but also that it lasts longer. Store it in an airtight glass container, and always in a cool, dry, and dark place.

How to use

The use of black pepper in food is limitless. Pongal, a breakfast food in South India, contains whole black peppercorns, which adds a delicious fiery quality to the dish.

Different coloured peppercorns ready for grinding in a pestle and mortar. Photo by Gualberto107, c/o FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rasam with whole peppers is not only tasty, but is also a cure for cold and blocked nasal passages. Something as simple as fried rice can be spiked with pepper for additional flavour. Freshly crushed pepper can be added in almost anything — from salads, sunny side-ups, and soups, to pastas, and even buttermilk. You can use it to spice up sauces for steaks or curries, or use it to coat meats such as duck or chicken before grilling it. But most experts will recommend that you cook pepper as less as possible; it’s the freshly ground ones that are most beneficial. Therefore, invest in a good pepper mill, and keep it on the table — you never know when you might need it.

References

Karsha, P.V., Lakshmi, O.B. (2010) Antibacterial activity of black pepper (Piper nigrum Linn.) with special reference to its mode of action on bacteria. Indian J. Nat. Prod. Resour. 1(2) pp. 213–5.
McNamara, F.N., Randall, A., Gunthorpe, M.J. (2005) Effects of piperine, the pungent component of black pepper, at the human vanilloid receptor (TRPV1). Brit. J. Pharm. 144 pp. 781-790
Naidu, K.A., and Thippeswamy, N.B. (2002) Inhibition of human low density lipoprotein oxidation by active pinciples from spices. Mol. Cell Biochem., 229 pp. 19-23

Park, U. H., Jeong, H. S., Jo, E. Y., Park, T., Yoon, S. K., Kim, E. J., … & Um, S. J. (2012). Piperine, a component of black pepper, inhibits adipogenesis by antagonizing PPARγ activity in 3T3-L1 cells. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 60(15), pp. 3853-3860

Premi, B.R. (2000) Essential oils and oleoresins in India. Beverage Food World 27(4) pp. 12–9.
Purseglove, J.W., Brown, E.J., Green, C.L., Robbins, S.R.J. (1980) Spices. New York: Longman Inc.

Rupasinghe, H. V., Sekhon-Loodu, S., Mantso, T., & Panayiotidis, M. I. (2016). Phytochemicals in regulating fatty acid β-oxidation: Potential underlying mechanisms and their involvement in obesity and weight loss. Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 165, pp. 153-163.

Vijayakumar, R.S., Surya, D. and Nalini, N. (2004) Antioxidant efficacy of black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) and piperine in rats with high fat diet induced oxidative stress. Redox Rep., 9 pp. 105-110
Zachariah, T.J., Parthasarathy, V.A. (2008) Black pepper. In: Chemistry of spices. (Edt. Parthasarathy, V.A., Chempakam, B., Zachariah T.J.)  Cambridge, MA: CAB Intl. p 21–40.
Zarai, Z., Boujelbene, E., Salem, N.B., Gargouri, Y., Sayari, A. (2013) Antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of various solvent extracts, piperine and piperic acid from Piper nigrum. LWT–Food Sci Technol 50 pp. 634–41.

 

2 Comments

  1. I think black pepper is highly under-rated in my humble opinion. I just feel there should be more dishes associated with it. Absolutely love it. Bring it on !

  2. If you are making dry rubs, marinades and sauces like gravy then black pepper is an absolute must. I’m not sure what brand you might be using but i go with Watkins which comes in a 12 oz. tin. They sent me stuff to review and since you are writing about its properties I thought it worth the effort to write in and discuss it. Of all the brands I have tried this is one of the best. The flavour is so rounded but peppery hot.

    The package for keeping the black pepper is important. A sealed tin is ideal because any plastic means there is a severe loss of aroma.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.