Black pepper (Piper nigrum) bears the royal pedigree, “King of Spices.” In early times, it was more valuable than gold. Only the wealthy could afford it; dowries were endowed with it and many bribes for special favors were paid with it. Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, part of the mummification ritual after his death in 1213 B.C. In classical times, both Attila the Hun and Alaric I the Visigoth insisted on pepper as a large part of Rome’s ransom. In 1492, demand for it was one of the main reasons Queen Isabella sent Columbus west in search of a new route to the Indies. As fate would have it, he ended up discovering a new continent, but 8,000 miles off from the “land of peppers” – India’s Malabar Coast where the spice has thrived for over 4,000 years.
So why all the hoopla? Pepper hasn’t the instant allure of a juicy, aromatic fruit or berry, nor the glitter of gold or other precious stones. The one irresistible quality of this drab, wrinkled little bead is its particular pungent flavor that can perk up the dullest of dishes and, thereby, unleash it’s considerable curative powers. In pre-modern times it was believed to alleviate a whole host of ills, from constipation, earache, insect bites to hernia, gangrene, arthritis, heart and lung disease.
Today researchers are learning that the ancients were onto something. The sharp flavor and healing prowess come from piperine and other volatile oils in the pepper. It’s the piperine that zaps the taste buds, often triggering a sneeze when it hits the nerve endings inside your nose. Studies are finding that piperine can be effective in treating a vast array of conditions, including cancer, digestive disorders, heart disease, high blood pressure, loss of hearing, quitting smoking, and more.
Buying and Storage
Pepper is the fruit of a vine filled with peppercorns on a twisty stalk, like shiny beads. Black pepper is picked unripe, then dried to bring out the flavor: sharp, full-bodied and fiery. White pepper starts out the same as the black, but is allowed to ripen more fully on the vine. It’s less pungent, more expensive, hotter than black, but slightly sweet. Green pepper is from the same fruit, but harvested before mature. It has a milder, cleaner, fresher flavor.
Piperine is in all peppercorns, but most plentiful in black. While India is no longer the world’s largest supplier, its pepper is still the best quality with the highest piperine content.
Black pepper is available whole, cracked or ground. For the best taste and health benefits, buy whole and grind as needed in a peppermill; cracked or ground looses oils more quickly. Look for large peppercorns with dark brown to jet black rough skin and a dull patina. Shiny patina means inferior quality. Gray-looking corns are best because they include the whole berry with its white core. If the corns are too black, there may be too many hollow berries without the core and, therefore, missing oils and flavor complexity.
Whole black peppercorns keep for years if stored in an airtight container away from sunlight, but, under the same conditions, ground or cracked looses its aroma and heat relatively quickly.
Digestion: Piperine stimulates the taste buds, triggering the pancreas to start producing digestive enzymes. It also tones the lining of the intestines which boosts digestive power in numerous ways, including more efficient absorption of foods and faster transit time. In a study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, gastroenterologists found that 1.5 grams of black pepper (about 1/20 ounce) sped up the time it takes for food to move all the way through the GI tract. Slow transit time is linked to many problems, from constipation to colon cancer. The researchers concluded that black pepper “is of clinical importance in the management of various gastrointestinal disorders.” Black pepper has also been shown to relieve flatulence and calm nausea. (Precaution: black pepper is not recommended post abdominal surgery or for ulcer patients.)
Cancer: Lab studies have shown that piperine may play a role in preventing or treating cancer. Researchers discovered that regular use of black pepper inhibited growth of human colon cancer cells. In animal studies on lung cancer, piperine changed the level of several enzymes, producing an anti-tumor effect. Black pepper extracts added to the diet of mice with breast cancer increased lifespan by 65%.
Arthritis: Korean researchers found piperine reduced compounds that worsen inflammation, especially in rheumatoid arthritis, and eased other arthritis symptoms.
Prevent Alzheimer’s: In Thailand researchers found that piperine extract given to animals with Alzheimer’s-like brain changes “significantly improved memory impairment and neurodegeneration [destruction of brain cells].”
Better brains: The same team discovered that piperine had “anti-depression-like activity and cognitive-enhancing effect” when fed to lab animals, leading them to conclude that piperine may “improve brain function.”
Improve balance in elderly: Japanese studies found that sniffing black pepper oil stabilized the ability to stand, lowering the risk of falling in people aged 78 and older. As reported in the journal Gait and Posture, “Olfactory stimulation with black pepper may improve postural stability in older adults.”
Help post-stroke swallowing: After a stroke many people suffer from dysphagia – difficulty swallowing. The same Japanese team discovered that sniffing black pepper oil for 1 minute improved swallowing. They concluded in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society: “Inhalation of black pepper oil…might benefit older post-stroke patients with dysphagia, regardless of their level of consciousness or physical or mental status.”
Aid brain-damaged children on feeding tubes: The same Japanese researchers found that sniffing black pepper oil could stimulate the appetite of neurologically damaged children on feeding tubes, helping them eat more solid foods.
Quit smoking: Scientists at the Nicotine Research Laboratory in Durham, NC, discovered that the craving for cigarettes decreased after smokers puffed on a vapor containing black pepper essential oil. In the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependency, they wrote: “Cigarette substitutes delivering pepper constituents may prove useful in smoking cessation treatment.”
Lower blood pressure: In the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology Pakistani researchers presented studies showing that piperine lowered blood pressure in lab animals.
Help prevent heart disease: Scientists in India found that lab animals fed a high-fat diet and black pepper or piperine had much less oxidation – a crucial step in the process that turns dietary cholesterol into artery-clogging plaque. They concluded: “Supplementation with black pepper or piperine can reduce high-fat diet induced oxidative stress to the cells.”
Protect hearing: Korean studies noted that piperine protected cells in the cochlea (the sensory organ of hearing in the ear) from chemical damage. Cochlear damage leads to hearing loss.
Reversing vitiligo: Vitiligo is a skin disease caused by a malfunction in pigment- producing cells called melanocytes, leading to irregular patches of pale skin. For centuries, traditional physicians have recommended black pepper as treatment for this condition. Recently, UK researchers found that piperine promotes growth of melanocytes, concluding in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology:” This finding supports the traditional use of black pepper in vitiligo.”
In the Kitchen
Next to salt, black pepper is the world’s most versatile and indispensible culinary spice. Cooks down through the ages have discovered that a few grinds of a peppermill can elevate a so-so dish to star quality, as well as salvage the most uninspiring plate of food.
The robust taste of black pepper is most closely associated with strong-flavored dishes. Apply liberally to red meat, game, seafood, beans and lentils; use it lightly on more delicate foods. You can grind black pepper on pretty much anything, even fruit. Berries, apples, pears, cheese, as well as soups, stews, fish and poultry all sparkle with a few grinds.
You might want to keep white peppercorns on hand for those dishes that need a pepper bite without an overpowering pepper fragrance. Always add pepper to liquids and sauces at the last minute. If added too early, it can loose it’s unique aroma and leave a bitter taste that’s hard to balance. Keep peppercorns in a metal, plastic or glass grinder – not wood, which will leach pepper of its volatile oils.
A few more pepper tips:
- Rub coarsely ground peppercorns into red meats before roasting or braising. Be generous; it can take a lot.
- Add whole to marinades, stocks, and dishes being pickled.
- Slice strawberries over watercress and sprinkle generously with black pepper. Dress lightly with olive oil/lemon vinaigrette.
- Add cracked pepper to homemade salad dressings. (Whole corns can be cracked using a mortal and pestle, or a rolling pin.)
- Keep a peppermill, rather than a shaker of ground pepper, on your table. (People have been known to bring their own peppermills along when they eat out, just in case they should be confronted with, horror of horrors, a shaker of ground!)
The Epicentre: Encyclopedia of Spices
Healing Spices by Bharat Aggarwal, PhD (Sterling Publishing)
“Black Pepper Offers a Powerful Boost to Overall Health at a Very Low Cost” – NaturalNews.com