In this article:
- Black pepper belongs to the Piperaceae family.
- The black pepper plant is a woody vine grown in tropical climates.
- Black pepper is the most sold spice in the United States. This spice has been used for over 2,000 years in many cuisines.
- Black pepper has a strong pungent flavor that comes from volatile-oils, such as piperine.
- Peppercorns contain an impressive list of plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties.
- Black pepper is now commonplace, but it was historically enjoyed only by the wealthy and was traded on the spice routes from India to Europe.
Piper nigrum, or black pepper, is a perennial climbing vine. The fruit from this vine produces green, black, and white peppercorns. The vine features clusters of 50-150 flowers.
The fruits that yield the peppercorns develop on each cluster and are round in shape. These fruits start as green and ripen to red.
All three types of peppercorn – green, black, and white –bear the same fruit. However, the fruits are harvested and processed at different stages of their life cycle.
For example, black peppercorns are picked when the berries are half ripe and about to turn red. Then they are dried, which causes them to become darker in color as well as shrivel and wrinkle.
Green peppercorns are harvested while they are still green and unripe. White peppercorns are very ripe and then soaked in brine, which removes their darker outer shell and leaves just the white seed.
White peppercorns have a hotter but less complex taste than black peppercorns. White peppercorns also turn bitter and go stale faster than black peppercorns.
White peppercorns are primarily used in the preparation of light-colored dishes, such as white sauces, for aesthetic reasons. It is also used in Asian and Swedish cuisines for its unique flavor.
Most ground pepper sold in markets is from India, but may also be imported from Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia. It is also known as the king of spices and has been popularly used for centuries.
Black pepper may be one of the first spices to be used as a food preservative and additive.
Salt is generally a more effective preservative because it can dry out and cure foods, but black pepper does offer some antimicrobial properties that can be beneficial for food preservation.
Black pepper is highly flavorful and pungent. It is available in whole, cracked, and powder forms. Freshly ground pepper is often more aromatic and flavorful than packaged ground powders, as the spice loses some of its pungency while sitting on the shelf.
The compounds in peppercorns that provide the color, aroma, and flavor contain lignans, alkaloids, flavonoids, amides, and other aromatic compounds. Essential oil is also present and contains linalool, limonene, pinene, phellandrene, and sabinene.
Piperine is also present in peppercorns. It has antimicrobial properties and provides the characteristic heat found in pepper. The potency of the spice is greatly reduced once the peppercorn is ground, and piperine is exposed to the air.
While peppercorns are the most common and most edible part of the plant, many other products are made from the pepper plant:
- Pepper oil
- Tea from the leaves
- Candies and sweets that contain pepper oils or resins
- Preservative for sausage
Nutritional Value of Pepper
Don’t let this commonplace spice fool you –pepper packs a lot of nutrients! Calcium, iron, manganese, and other vitamins and minerals are found in pepper.
One teaspoon of ground pepper contains only 5 calories, 1 g of carbohydrate (half of which is fiber), and negligible fat and protein. One teaspoon of pepper also contains 8.7 mg calcium (1% of the daily value), 0.6 mg iron (3% of the daily value), 0.1 mg manganese (6% of the daily value), and 3.3 mcg vitamin K (4% of the daily value). (1)
Health Benefits of Black Pepper
Black pepper has been used in various cuisines and traditional medicines for centuries and is reported to help with a variety of health conditions. This article will review the current evidence regarding many of these health claims.
1. Aids in Weight Loss
Some people believe that pepper may aid in weight loss.
A 2018 study found that black pepper-based beverages could change the participants’ perception of their hunger and desire to eat and increased their reported levels of satiety. (2)
Another study done on obese rats found that the piperine found in black pepper helped reduce body weight and total fat mass. (3)
Some studies point to pepper aiding in weight loss, but more large-scale quality studies on humans are needed to understand the effectiveness of this spice for weight loss.
2. Helps Decrease Vitiligo
Vitiligo is a common skin condition characterized by the formation of pale, white patches. These patches form due to the lack of melanin, the substance that gives color or pigment to the skin.
A small study done in 2019 found that pepper extract, as well as the piperine and alkaloid found in pepper, may cause the formation of more melanin. An ointment with pepper extract showed some promise at decreasing vitiligo. (4)
While the study results were interesting, more research is needed, including larger quality studies on humans, to determine the efficacy of pepper and its extracts at improving vitiligo, as well as its proper application and dosage.
Other Benefits of Black Pepper
1. Relieves Gum Problems
Piperine may help reduce inflammation that leads to periodontal or gum disease. One study found that piperine helped to inhibit the production of nitric oxide and TNF-α, both of which are markers of inflammation. (5)
Another study demonstrated the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, piperine, and lycopene extracts. Therefore, they may be used for managing inflammatory diseases such as periodontitis and gingivitis. (6)
While certain properties in black pepper may help reduce inflammation that leads to gum disease, further studies are required to establish the herb’s efficacy, as well as the proper dosage and application.
2. May Aid in Cancer Prevention
A 2017 study found that piperine may stop the spread and survival of several types of cancer cell lines. Piperine has been found to modify enzymes and transcription factors that, in turn, can stop the invasion and spread of cancer cells as well as stop the blood supply to these cancer cells. (7)
A 2018 paper underscored the potential of piperine as a chemopreventative agent. (8)
The effects of an isolated compound found in pepper, piperine, have shown promise in fighting cancer cells. However, more studies are needed to obtain a clear idea of the efficacy of piperine against certain types of cancer, as well as the proper dosage and application.
3. Stimulates Appetite
Although research shows that pepper may suppress your appetite, there is also some evidence that it may stimulate it. A 2008 study revealed that black pepper might stimulate the appetite by stimulating the sense of smell. (9)
While pepper is touted to help suppress the appetite, it may also stimulate it. More studies are warranted to determine the role that this spice plays in appetite control, as well as its efficacy and proper usage.
4. Improves Brain Function
Animal studies have shown that black pepper is helpful in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. An extract from pepper improved learning and memory in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. (10)
A 4-week trial indicated that piperine improved brain function in rats. However, more research is needed to understand the mechanism of piperine and pepper extract on cognitive function. Research is also needed to test the effects of pepper and piperine on humans. (11)
Extracts from black pepper have shown promise in improving brain function in animal studies. Further research will help establish its efficacy and proper usage in humans.
5. Lowers Blood Pressure
Black pepper has been reported to help with a variety of health conditions, and recent studies suggest that extracts from black pepper may help manage blood pressure.
Results of some studies showed the piperine in black pepper normalized the blood pressure in rats. The essential oils found in black pepper also demonstrated antioxidant activity and acted as ACE inhibitors. (12)
Piperine has shown some promise at lowering blood pressure in rat models, but more research is needed to determine its efficacy and proper usage in humans.
6. Lowers Blood Sugar
Many cultures use black pepper to help manage diabetes, and recent studies have shown that compounds found in black pepper may help with blood sugar control.
A recent study found that piperine, when used with metformin, helped to lower blood glucose levels more than metformin alone in diabetic rats. (14)
Another study done on rats found that piperine used in combination with the compounds curcumin and quercetin helped lower blood glucose levels significantly. (15)
Piperine has shown some promise at lowering blood sugar in rat models, but more research is needed to determine its efficacy and proper usage in humans.
Varietals, Selection, and Storage of Black Pepper
It is thought that black pepper originated on the Malabar Coast of India. Sri Lanka is also home to many wild pepper varietals.
In fact, since so many wild pepper varietals are found in Sri Lanka, the nation is now considered to be another point of origin for this popular spice.
Some high-yielding varietals were introduced in the 1970s, including Panniur-1 from India and Kuchin from Malaysia. The MB21 and GK49 varieties also give a high yield and produce superior-quality pepper, making them popular cultivar choices.
Black pepper can be purchased whole, crushed, or ground. For the most pungent flavor, it is best to buy whole peppercorns and crush or grind them just before using them.
Ground pepper found on the market is sometimes mixed with other spices, so grinding whole peppercorns ensures the best flavor and aroma.
Look for peppercorns that are free of any blemishes and feel heavy and compact. They should be stored in a dark, dry, and cool environment inside an air-tight container.
The shelf life of ground pepper is about 3 months, whereas whole peppercorns usually last indefinitely.
Are pink peppercorns different from black, white, and green peppercorns?
Pink peppercorns are, in fact, dried berries from the Brazilian pepper tree (Shinusterebinthfolia), which is not of the same plant family as peppers.
Can black pepper trigger an allergic reaction?
While it is common for people to cough or sneeze on inhaling pepper powder, an allergic reaction to it is rare. However, it may trigger asthma symptoms in patients with asthma.
Can you add black pepper to tea?
Black pepper can be added while making tea and is a valuable additive. As both tea leaves and peppercorns are rich in antioxidants, adding pepper to your steeping tea may be a good way to enjoy the benefits.
Is black pepper keto-friendly?
One tablespoon of ground black pepper has about 1 g net carbohydrates, which can easily fit into a ketogenic diet.
Does adding black pepper to turmeric enhance curcumin’s activity?
Only 5% of turmeric is composed of curcumin, a potent compound. Similarly, only about 5% of black pepper is made up of piperine, another powerful substance.
It has been found that piperine can stop the body from excreting curcumin and, in effect, increases the compound’s effects.
Safety Information of Black Pepper
Black pepper is generally considered safe as long as it is enjoyed in moderation. Most people can enjoy black pepper when used in cooking or added to food without any side effects.
Pepper that is taken in excess can accidentally get stuck in the lungs, causing coughing and breathing problems and may lead to serious issues in children. Pepper that gets in the eye can lead to redness, burning, and irritation.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should limit pepper to just the amount used in cooking or added to food. Taking large amounts of pepper, as well as pepper or piperine supplements, may increase the risk of miscarriage.
Drug Interactions with Black Pepper
The following medications may cause problems when taken together with pepper, so caution is needed.
Anticoagulants: The piperine in black pepper has been shown to have blood-thinning properties.
If you are taking blood-thinning medication (anticoagulant), such as warfarin (Coumadin), you should avoid taking supplements with black pepper or piperine to avoid the risk of bleeding. However, using pepper as a spice in cooking or preparing food will not increase the risk.
Diabetic medications: Piperine has also been shown to lower blood sugar. If you are on diabetic medication, please talk with your doctor or pharmacist before taking black pepper or piperine supplements to avoid extremely low blood sugar levels.
Carbamazepine: Patients taking antiepileptic medications, such as carbamazepine, should be cautious about taking black pepper or piperine supplements.
The reason is black pepper and piperine can increase blood flow to the digestive system, thus improving the absorption rate of carbamazepine. This higher absorption can lead to carbamazepine toxicity.
Other medications: Taking black pepper or piperine supplements can increase the risk of side effects of medications that are broken down by the liver. These medications include ketoconazole (Nizoral), itraconazole (Sporanox), lovastatin (Mevacor), fexofenadine (Allegra), and triazolam (Halcion).
Consult your doctor before taking black pepper or piperine supplements if you are using these drugs.
Recipes Using Black Pepper
1. Black Pepper Chicken
- 2 tbsp neutral oil
- 1 pound chicken breast, chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 1 small onion, peeled and sliced
- 1 bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp cornstarch or potato starch
- 2-3 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- Pour some amount of oil into a wok or large pan over medium-high heat.
- Cook the chicken in the oil for 4-5 minutes or until it is cooked through. Transfer to a clean plate.
- Add the rest of the oil into the same wok or pan. Then add the vegetables, garlic, and ginger, stirring regularly for 5-6 minutes.
- Add the soy sauce, oyster sauce, vinegar, cornstarch or potato starch, and black pepper into a small bowl and mix with a whisker until the starch dissolves, and the ingredients are well combined.
- Add the chicken into the pan once the vegetables are cooked and pour the sauce all over the chicken and vegetables.
- Stir over the flame for a couple of minutes, until the sauce has thickened.
- Remove from heat and serve immediately.
This dish goes well over steamed rice or hot chowmien noodles.
2. Peppered Mashed Potatoes
- 2 lbs peeled and chopped Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup plain yogurt
- 2 tsp butter
- Put the chopped potatoes into a small pot and cover with water. Bring the pot to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and cover the pot. Allow the potatoes to simmer for 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.
- Remove them from the water and transfer to a bowl.
- Add the milk, yogurt, and butter to the hot, drained potatoes. Mash the potatoes, milk, yogurt, and butter together using a potato masher.
- Add the salt, pepper, and garlic, and stir until the spices are evenly distributed, and no lumps remain.
Black pepper is a popular spice and has been important in trade and culinary use for centuries. This spice also contains many nutrients and powerful compounds. Piperine is an alkaloid in black pepper and has been shown to exhibit therapeutic properties.
Although black pepper and piperine have shown promise in the treatment of some health conditions, more research, particularly human trials, is required to establish the mechanism, efficacy, proper usage, and dosage of this pungent spice.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Alex Roberts, MS, CD (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist)
Black pepper is generally considered safe in quantities used for cooking. Cooking with up to 20 mg of piperine, the major bioactive component of black pepper, appears safe. (16)
High amounts may cause irritation (redness around the eyes) and sneezing. Too much black pepper can also cause digestive distress. There is also the possibility of a drug-nutrient reaction if you take prescription drugs and heavy doses of piperine. (16)
Black pepper may significantly increase the absorption of some drugs and should be used with caution. Always check with your health provider if you are taking prescription drugs and consuming large amounts of black pepper.
The medicinal and pharmacological activities of black pepper come from the alkaloid piperine. Piperine has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (17)
Piperine also has bio-enhancing properties that boost nutrient absorption. For instance, resveratrol and curcumin have poor bioavailability, they tend to pass through the digestive system without being absorbed. Piperine improves the bioavailability of these compounds and stimulates the release of enzymes to help digest fat and carbs. (16)(18)
Black pepper also aids in weight loss. Spices in general increase thermogenesis (the production of heat in the body) that uses energy.
Black pepper may give your metabolism a slight boost, but not enough to significantly affect your weight. (19) Reducing overall calorie intake is still the best way to control weight. Black pepper may also promote proper stomach function and aid digestion.
There have been studies on rats showing the hepatoprotective effects of the methanolic extract from black pepper fruits and piperine.
In one study, the administration of black pepper reduced the hepatic biomarkers TG, AST, ALT, ALP, and bilirubin in rats with ethanol-CCl4-induced hepatotoxicity. (20)
In the kitchen! Use when cooking to add flavor and spice to your food.
Both the peppers contain piperine, a chemical found in peppercorns. It has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Hence, black and white pepper offer similar health benefits.
However, the two have some differences in appearance, flavor, and shelf life. White pepper has a milder taste and can quickly become stale and lose its flavor, whereas black pepper has a more pungent flavor and can last a long time.
Black pepper is known as the “king of spices” and is used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine. (21) Many health benefits have been found with the use of black pepper. However, most studies are based on rat models and much more human studies are needed.
Remember, black pepper can interact with certain prescription drugs and inhibit absorption. Check with your doctor if you consume high doses of black pepper.
About Alex Roberts, MS, RDN, CD: Alex is a clinical dietitian at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. She provides medical nutrition therapy and education to patients in the critical care unit. Outside of work, Alex enjoys spending time in the kitchen, exploring the outdoors, and providing nutrition and wellness information to her family and friends.