Pepper is so common in kitchens today that it’s easy to take for granted, but this savory and spicy seasoning adds not only a powerful kick to your meals but also an impressive boost to your health.
Black pepper (Piper Nigrum L.) is native only to Kerala, India, and ancient trade is thought to have occurred between India and the West, with references to black pepper appearing in Greek and Roman texts.1 The spice trade was a highly profitable business in the ancient world, and pepper was so in demand that traders could set their prices, leading to the spice becoming a luxury item reserved for the rich.
Even today, the Dutch term “peperduur,” which means as expensive as pepper, is used to describe anything that’s extremely expensive.2 Eventually, more trade routes were established, leading pepper to make up 70% of the international spice trade.
As it became more widely available, prices dropped and it became a mainstay in cuisines throughout the world and is featured in popular spice blends such as India’s garam masala, Morocco’s ras el hanout, France’s quatre épices and Cajun and jerk blends.3
Traditionally, pepper was used as a carminative agent to help relieve gas as well as to stimulate gastric secretions.4 This “king of spices” was also valued for gastrointestinal purposes, including to relieve vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Emerging research hints that its health benefits extend far beyond this, however.5
Nine Reasons to Eat More Black Pepper
1. Antioxidant Properties — Black pepper and its main active ingredient piperine, which gives pepper its heat and pungent flavor, are powerful antioxidants, with notable free-radical scavenging activity that may offer chemoprevention and help suppress tumor growth.6 Black pepper essential oil is also rich in phenolics, flavonoids and proanthocyanidins, which have strong antioxidant activity.7
Piperine, which is also anti-inflammatory, also protects against lipid peroxidation, which may play a role in chronic diseases like cancer, liver disease, atherosclerosis and even the aging process itself.8
2. Cardiovascular Protection — With cardiovascular diseases representing the leading cause of death globally, a December 2020 systematic review published in Trends in Food Science & Technology is of tremendous relevance,9 as it found black pepper and piperine have protective effects on cardiovascular diseases.
Its key findings reveal that black pepper regulates lipid metabolism, inflammation and oxidation status, which all affect heart health, while piperine specifically targeted processes associated with atherosclerosis.
A number of additional beneficial effects from piperine were also noted, such that they suggested the substance, and black pepper, could be used as a food additive to prevent and treat cardiovascular diseases.
Its beneficial effects include preventing the uptake of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) associated with heart disease in macrophages, preventing lipid peroxidation as well as preventing inflammatory cells from adhering to the endothelial monolayer and improving the overall lipid profile. In addition, researchers explained:10
“Besides, piperine may ameliorate myocardial ischemia, cardiac injury, and cardiac fibrosis, exhibit antihypertensive and antithrombosis effect, as well as prevent arterial stenosis by inhibiting vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation.”
3. Anti-Inflammatory Properties — A 2020 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry further revealed that alkaloids from black pepper have anti-inflammatory activity by activating the nuclear factor kappa B, or NF-kB pathway.11
This proinflammatory signaling pathway plays a role in the expression of proinflammatory genes like cytokines, chemokines and adhesion molecules, and “has long been considered the ‘holy grail’ as a target for new anti-inflammatory drugs.”12
4. Liver Protection — Piperine has diverse pharmacological actions, with hepatoprotectivity13 — or liver protection — among them. Research has shown piperine offers protection against liver damage induced by tertiary butyl hydroperoxide and the chemical carbon tetrachloride by reducing lipid peroxidation.
Black pepper extract also stimulates liver regeneration by restricting fibrosis,14 and an animal study showed black pepper essential oil (BPEO) improved liver health after chemical injury. The researchers stated, “BPEO can be used as potential liver health products and natural preservatives.”15
5. Anticancer — Piperine has antimutagenic and cancer-preventive effects.16 Pepper extract has been found to inhibit the development of solid tumors in mice with lymphoma as well as increase lifespan.17 Researchers noted in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology:18
“Ayurvedic and Chinese traditional medicine and tribal people use herbal preparations containing Piper nigrum fruits for the treatment of many health disorders like inflammation, fever, asthma and cancer. In Brazil, traditional maroon culture associates the spice Piper nigrum to health recovery and inflammation attenuation.”
Their study found black pepper extract had cytotoxic, antiproliferative and antitumor effects in MCF-7 breast cancer cells by inducing oxidative stress and triggering apoptosis, leading researchers to conclude “the overall data from this study are well in line with the traditional claims for the antitumor effect of Piper nigrum fruits.”19
Studies also suggest that piperine may have anticancer effects by enhancing the antioxidant system and increasing the level and activity of detoxifying enzymes.20
6. Brain Health — Piperine may be beneficial for cognitive brain functioning,21 and animal studies suggest black pepper extract significantly improves memory in rats with Alzheimer’s-like disease, likely by attenuating oxidative stress in the hippocampus brain region.22
Piperine has also been found to increase cell viability and restore mitochondrial functioning and primary neurons in cells damaged by a neurotoxic insecticide, and also has neuroprotective effects in models of Parkinson’s disease.23 Pain-relieving, anticonvulsant, antidepressant and antiseizure effects have also been noted.24
7. Antidiabetes Effects — Black pepper has multiple antidiabetes effects, including helping to improve blood sugar metabolism.25
Further, in an eight-week study involving 86 overweight subjects,26 those who consumed a combination of piperine and other bioactive food ingredients, including epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), capsaicins and L-carnitine, had a significant decrease in insulin resistance, suggesting the ingredients “might be useful for the treatment of obesity-related inflammatory metabolic dysfunctions.”
8. Increase Nutrient Absorption — Black pepper has the unique ability to synergistically interact with nutrients, increasing their absorption.27 For instance, research shows that when EGCG from green tea is administered in combination with piperine, it increases the absorption of EGCG and helps it stay in the bloodstream longer.28
Piperine also increases the bioavailability of resveratrol and curcumin. In one study, the addition of piperine increased absorption of curcumin by 2,000%.29 Further, as noted in Medicinal & Aromatic Plants:30
“Piperine increases the absorption of many drugs and nutrients from the gastrointestinal tract by various mechanisms. It alters the membrane dynamics and increases permeability at site of absorption.
Piperine increases the serum half-lives of some substances like beta-carotene and coenzyme Q10 and decreases metabolism of many drugs by inhibiting various metabolizing enzymes …”
This means adding black pepper to your meals may make it easier for your body to absorb the many nutrients they contain. Pepper itself also contains some nutrients, including manganese, vitamin K, fiber and iron.
9. Weight Management — Piperine blocks the formation of new fat cells,31 and when combined with capsaicin and other substances, black pepper was found to burn as many calories as taking a 20-minute walk.32 A small study involving 16 healthy adults also revealed that drinking a black pepper-based beverage had appetite-suppressing effects.33
Further, piperine’s ability to inhibit new fat cells from forming, known as adipogenesis, is said to be due to downregulation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPAR?), an intracellular molecule involved in vascular and immune processes,34 making it a potential treatment for obesity-related diseases.35
Pepper Offers Too Many Benefits to Count
The health benefits of black pepper do not end here. In addition to piperine, other valuable constituents in black pepper include piperlongumine, sylvatin, sesamin, diaeudesmin piperlonguminine, pipermonaline, and piperundecalidine, each with their own unique health potential.
Black pepper has been prized since ancient times and is featured in traditional medicine, including Ayurveda. Researchers from Guru Jambheshwar University of Science and Technology in India noted:36
“It is most commonly used to treat chronic bronchitis, asthma, constipation, gonorrhea, paralysis of the tongue, diarrhea, cholera, chronic malaria, viral hepatitis, respiratory infections, stomachache, bronchitis, diseases of the spleen, cough, and tumors.”
They noted a wide range of reported pharmacological activities from black pepper, including:37
There’s also some evidence that suggests black pepper plays a role in gut health by altering the makeup of intestinal microbiota and possibly acting as a prebiotic.38 So, with its many beneficial properties, feel free to add pepper liberally to your meals.
For best results, choose whole peppercorns and grind them fresh when you need them. Dried peppercorns can stay fresh for three to four years, especially if stored in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight or heat,39 however once ground pepper will gradually lose some of its flavor and potency. Ground pepper may also be adulterated with something other than black pepper.
Peppercorns are versatile in that you can use a pepper grinder to grind them to a course or fine texture, depending on your preference. You can also use them crushed, especially when using pepper in a coating. When cooking, use a hand-held mill and grind fresh peppercorn at the last moment to retain the full flavor and health potential of the essential oils.