Often taken for granted, black pepper (Piper nigrum) is probably one of the most common seasonings used on food and in cooking. It is a pungent spice that comes from the pepper plant, a tropical vine that develops berries known as peppercorns. These peppercorns can be purchased either preground or whole for use in a pepper grinder.
There are actually three types of peppercorns: black, white, and green. They all come from the same plant, but they vary in color based on their ripeness and how they’re processed. For example, black peppercorns are picked when they’re just about ripe. They’re about to turn red when they’re picked, but turn black when they dry out. Green peppercorns, often used in Asian cuisine, are unripe when picked. White peppercorns are ripe and have the outer shell removed. White pepper is often used in food or dishes that are white in color.
Pepper has been a prized spice since ancient Greek and Roman times, where it was used as currency and as an offering to the gods. And not only was it used as a seasoning in food, but it also helped to disguise the taste of rotten meat! Pepper is credited with prompting the Europeans to find a route to India, where the spice was grown, thereby leading to the colonization of India and the exploration of other lands, including America. Today, pepper is grown in various countries, including Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Brazil.
Digestion. It may seem odd, but black pepper can promote digestive health. Black pepper stimulates the taste buds, signaling the stomach to release hydrochloric acid, which is needed to digest food. In fact, a lack of hydrochloric acid may lead to digestive problems, such as indigestion and heartburn, and decreased absorption of nutrients.
Gas buster. Another benefit of eating black pepper is that it can help relieve intestinal gas, probably by stimulating the release of hydrochloric acid. (This is good to know with the holidays coming up!).
Antioxidant. Black pepper is an antioxidant powerhouse, containing types of antioxidants called polyphenols. Antioxidants likely help to protect against heart disease, some types of cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. It’s thought that black pepper may reduce the harmful effects of a diet high in saturated fat, and that its antioxidants help support other antioxidants in the body that work to keep levels of cholesterol and blood fats in check.
Cancer fighter. A phytochemical (chemical derived from a plant source) called piperine, found in black pepper, may block harmful substances in the body, preventing tumor cells from growing. In addition, black pepper enhances the anticancer effects of other spices in foods.
Nutrient booster. Piperine helps the body absorb and distribute nutrients throughout the body.
Cold fighter. Perhaps more of a folk remedy, it’s thought that black pepper can ease congestion and treat coughs. Sprinkle some into a cup of hot tea the next time a cold or flu hits you.
Black pepper is a very safe spice to consume when used in usual amounts (the amount that you’d add to food or use in cooking, for example). It’s possible that ingesting large amounts of pepper can actually cause indigestion and should be used with caution in people with ulcers. Inhaling pepper can irritate the lungs and may cause anoxia, a lack of oxygen to the body’s tissues. In addition, black pepper can affect the absorption of some medicines, including lithium (brand names Eskalith, Lithobid), phenytoin (Dilantin, Phenytek), propranolol (Inderal), rifampin (Rifadin, Rimactane), and theophylline (Theo-Dur, Respbid, and others), increasing the effects of these drugs. To be on the safe side, if you take any of these medicines, don’t eat pepper at the same time you take them, and don’t use more than one teaspoon of black pepper per day.
How to Use Black Pepper
Chances are you already use black pepper in and on your foods. Try sprinkling some pepper on fresh fruit for some zest. Ideally, it’s best to buy whole peppercorns and grind them just before eating, as preground pepper contains fewer antioxidants. Peppercorns keep for a long time, and if you store extra in the freezer, the piperine content increases. When cooking with pepper, add it at the end of cooking to prevent a harsh flavor. Try white pepper in light-colored dishes, such as mashed potatoes or white sauces. If you’re using a lot of pepper and cooking on the stove, avoid inhaling the fumes, as it can be irritating to your lungs.