Pepper has always been prized throughout history – be it for food, medicine or even trade. Considering this, it’s somewhat ironic that so little is known about the nutritional value of the spice that sits on your table. Read on to be amazed at just how much it’s capable of!
Black Pepper for Diseases
Black pepper has a bunch of nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin K, dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese and phosphorous. However, what makes this spice so extraordinary is its active compound called piperine.1, 2 Piperine is considered a phytonutrient, i.e., a compound from plants that appeals to our senses (sight, taste and smell), and also acts as an antioxidant. Because it fights free-radical damage, it can protect the body from the inside-out. This includes protecting the skin from sun damage, and other tissue from pollutants and stress. This also means that it reduces inflammation, where the immune system gets unnecessarily activated, playing a role in almost all simple to serious health troubles we see today – allergies, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many more.3 That’s not all though! In addition to reducing the inflammation of arthritic joints, it also lessens the perception of pain. That would explain why Ayurveda has been using pepper to reduce pain and fever for thousands of years.3, 4
Black Pepper, Digestion and Metabolism
Black pepper prevents the contamination and spoilage of food, thus inhibiting the consecutive effect that would then have on the tummy. That makes it a better replacement for synthetic food preservatives.3 Black pepper has also been used as a digestive aid, and to ease ulcers, diarrhea and other gastric problems for centuries. Today we know that this property can even help our metabolism, in numerous ways:2
i) It prompts the pancreas and intestines to secrete certain digestive enzymes as well as bile acid – the digestive liquid that helps break down fats. The salts in bile use up LDL (“bad” cholesterol), thus reducing it from blood. This not only improves our cholesterol profile, but also reduces our risk of heart disease.2
ii) The oils present in black pepper are believed to block enzymes that cause the breakdown of starch to glucose, which obstructs the spike of sugar in our bloodstream. This reduces the risk of type II diabetes, and helps manage preexisting diabetes.5
iii) In a similar enzyme-blocking manner, it may even reduce blood pressure and the related risk of heart attack, stroke and kidney disease.3
iv) Piperine is also believed to regulate our insulin and thyroid hormones (in a manner not yet well understood), which would have an effect on almost every aspect of our metabolism.3
Black Pepper and the Brain
Animal studies have shown that piperine has positive effects on mood as well as cognitive disorders. This could apply to us humans, too.3, 4 Pepper also has a sedative effect on the nervous system, which is why Ayurvedic medicine uses it to induce sleep and ease epileptic fits.4
Black Pepper and Other Nutrients
By virtue of piperine, black pepper increases the absorption of other phytonutrients like beta-carotene, by our body. It does so by altering the structure of our intestine at the molecular scale, in a way that allows more fluids to pass through it.6 Taking the example of beta-carotene, here’s why that’s helpful: In addition to being a strong antioxidant, beta-carotene is also converted to vitamin A in the body, making it beneficial for those who suffer from vitamin A deficiencies. This affects everything from night vision to brain function. Beyond that, the antioxidant potential of increased beta-carotene would also add to black pepper’s protection from the sun and pollutants.6
Likewise, deficiencies of iron, zinc, and iodine, which are widespread in developing countries, can also be dealt with by adding pepper to food.6 The therapeutic use of curcumin (from turmeric) in cancer prevention and care is fast gaining popularity, but is limited because of its poor absorption – that’s where piperine’s absorption-increasing ability comes in. This combination is also being investigated for its use with the chemotherapy drug, raloxifene, to prohibit cancer growth and for their compounded antioxidant effect.1, 7 Piperine increases compound absorption so much that a pepper extract called BioPerine (95% piperine) is now being sold commercially. Similarly, it’s also being used for cosmetic use, to increase the absorption of substances through the skin. For example, a non-irritant piperine is mixed with minoxidil, a drug that stimulates hair growth.1
Black Pepper in Our Diet
Black pepper can be added to almost anything – cooked and raw foods, soups, fruits and even juices. However, choose freshly ground whole organic peppercorns, because they provide the greatest benefits; pepper that comes pre-ground may have lost some of its piperine. This would also guarantee the absence of any additives.2, 8 You can see how adding black pepper to food may be one of the easiest and most economical ways to boost our overall health status. So, the next time you sit for a meal at your table, use that pepper grinder!
1. Balasubramanian S, et al. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2015: 00-00.
2. Butt MS, et al. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2012, 53(9): 875-886.
3. Ahmad N, et al. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 2012, 2(3, Supplement): S1945-S1953.
4. Meghwal M, Goswami TK. Phytother Res 2013, 27(8): 1121-1130.
5. Oboh G, et al. Advances in Pharmacological Sciences 2013, 2013: 926047.
6. Platel K, Srinivasan K. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2015: 00-00.
7. Kakarala M, et al. Breast cancer research and treatment 2010, 122(3): 777-785.
8. Schulz H, et al. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2005, 53(9): 3358-3363.