Black Pepper Health Benefits: Do They Really Exist?

Chef using a black pepper millBlack pepper is one of the most common ingredients in recipes because of its impact on taste. Yet, few of us stop to think about whether black pepper health benefits are possible.

In fact, it’s easy to assume that black pepper has little to no impact on health, largely because we eat so little of it at a time.

If you think about it though, we do use a lot of black pepper over time. After all, black pepper is a common spice and has been used extensively throughout history.

There is also much more to black pepper than meets the eye. The spice does have implications for health.

The Story of Black Pepper

Making Pepper

Black pepper is a plant in the Piperaceae family (scientific name Piper nigrum). The plant is cultivated for the fruit that it bears, which is then dried and used as seasoning.

The fruit is referred to as a peppercorn or simply pepper and is frequently purchased either in the ground form or in the form of the whole peppercorn.

Specifically, the following three types of pepper are the most common although other varieties do exist:

  • Different types of PepperBlack pepper: The unripe fruit cooked and dried
  • White pepper: Ripe fruit seeds
  • Green pepper: The unripe ed (but not cooked)

Pepper is the world’s most traded spice and is frequently used in conjunction with salt in recipes or as a seasoning on cooked food.

The flavor associated with pepper comes from Piperine , a chemical that creates a distinctive taste and provides black pepper’s main benefit.

Pepper is a native plant in both Southeast Asia and South Asia. Historically black pepper was a highly valuable commodity and at times was used as a form of currency.

At many points in history, black pepper was considered a luxury item, an expense that only the wealthy could afford.

For example, in the Middle Ages, Italy held a monopoly on trade for black pepper (which was sourced primarily from India), resulting in high prices. This monopoly was a key reason why the Portuguese sought a trade route to India.

However, in modern times, black pepper is no longer expensive or rare and it tends to be a relatively inexpensive spice that is used in homes frequently.

The black pepper that is used in homes and in cooking is created from the unripe fruit of the plant.

Unripe pepper fruitThis process starts with cooking the fruits in hot water. This process helps to clean them and make the drying process easier.

Following this, the fruits are dried either by machine or in the sun.

As the fruits dry, the outer portion of the fruit turns black and shrinks, resulting in a thin, black and wrinkled layer. In this form, the fruit is known as the black peppercorn.

At this point, the peppercorn may be sold as is or it may be ground to produce a dry powder.

Typically peppercorns are used ground in food. This involves either purchasing the pepper already ground or purchasing it as the peppercorns and then grinding it manually.

The black pepper we know comes from Piper nigrum and is the plant’s unripe fruit after cooking and drying

Traditional Medicine

Black pepper also has a significant history as a form of traditional medicine.

In this role, black pepper was associated with curing a number of illnesses, including constipation, gangrene, heart disease, tooth decay and joint pain as well as many others.

In some cases, black pepper was also associated with treating eye problems, an approach that would probably cause some pain in the recipient and is unlikely to offer many health benefits.

There is little to no scientific support for any of these claimed health benefits.

Nutrition

PSalt and Pepperer ounce, black pepper contains:

  • Vitamin K (57% Daily Value)
  • Iron (45% Daily Value)
  • Manganese (79% Daily Value)

Along with smaller amounts of many other important nutrients.

More than anything else, black pepper health benefits are most strongly associated with piperine.

As I mentioned before, this is the compound that is responsible for the unique flavor of pepper and it is only found in black pepper and long pepper.

Many of the studies into black pepper have specifically focused on piperine, often providing piperine as a supplement rather than black pepper.

However, there are also other components of black pepper, including a range of phytochemicals (such as pyrrolidines, piperidines and amides).

While these chemicals are often not studied independently in relation to black pepper health benefits, it is possible that they may play a role.

Piperine is a key compound in black pepper and is responsible for its health benefits

Black Pepper Health Benefits

TBag of Black Peppercornshere are a number of potential health benefits of black pepper.

For some potential health benefits, there has been a large amount of research, but for others, the research has been minimal.

In this section, I’m going to cover some of the benefits that have been associated with black pepper as well as the evidence for these benefits.

Weight Loss

Foods with a strong ‘kick’ have the potential to boost your metabolism – at least in the short-term. While this doesn’t last long, it may offer some potential benefits for people that eat spicy or peppery foods on a regular basis.

This impact is common across a range of different spiced foods and some herbal drinks.

It can result in a higher level of thermogenesis, which can potentially increase the amount of fat burned. In some cases, herbs and spices also have the ability to affect satiety, helping people to get full faster – which also has strong implications for weight loss (1).

In fact, research has found that piperine can decrease the production of adipose, meaning that it could potentially decrease weight gain (2).

Researchers have suggested that this outcome may mean that piperine may be able to play a role in the treatment of diseases related to obesity.

Weight Loss ConceptHowever, this study did use higher levels of piperine than would be found in the bloodstream from normal levels of black pepper consumption, so the results have to be considered with care.

One reason for this outcome may be a compound known as curcumin.

Curcumin found in turmeric is a powerful compound.  It has anti-inflammatory uses as does the spice  cinnamon (3).

Black pepper also acts to inhibit adipogenesis (a process involved in the production of fat). This process is thought to have some potential for treating diseases related to obesity (4).

Black pepper has implications for weight loss, mostly because of its piperine

Cardiovascular Benefits

Hands in the shape of a heartMany of the potential black pepper health benefits also strongly relate to cardiovascular health (5).

One study looked at piperine supplementation in rats. The supplementation was able to normalize blood pressure, reduce oxidative stress and lower inflammation in rats who had been fed a high carbohydrate high fat diet (6).

Black pepper may also have a role in the level of cholesterol in the blood.

Specifically, black pepper extract has been associated with reduced levels of cholesterol uptake and lower levels of blood lipids (7).

This impact may occur by the piperine internalizing the proteins involved in cholesterol transport (8).

A handful of studies have illustrated potential cardiovascular benefits of black pepper, although more research is needed

Anti-Inflammation and Antioxidant Activity

The piperine in black pepper has an anti-inflammatory effect (9,10) through suppressing the expression of the COX-2 gene and the suppression of enzyme activity (11).

Inflammation in the kneeResearchers have also been able to work out some of the key mechanisms involved in black pepper reducing the level of inflammation (12) and suggest that black pepper may play a role in the treatment of osteoarthritis (13).

Black pepper is also a natural antioxidant, which can help to protect the body against a range of diseases and improve health overall. One key way of achieving this is through lowering oxidative stress (14).

While the antioxidant strength of black pepper is lower than many other herbs and spices, it is still significant, particularly as people consume black pepper on a very regular basis.

One animal study found that supplementation with black pepper was able to reduce the level of oxidative stress experienced (15).

Black pepper acts both as an anti-inflammatory agent and an antioxidant

Nutrient Absorption

Piperine has also been linked with increasing the amount of absorption of other nutrients.

For example, one study found that an extract of piperine was able to increase the amount of beta-carotene in blood serum during supplementation of beta-carotene (16).

Another study found that black pepper could increase the absorption of fexofenadine (a medication for seasonal allergies) in rats (17).

The impact of black pepper on nutrient absorption is particularly important for people taking supplements or trying to incorporate sufficient vitamins and minerals into their body.

One of the challenges with supplementation is that not all of the supplement is absorbed into your body.

Black peppercornsIncreasing the absorption of the supplement is one way of improving the overall outcomes.

Black pepper potentially plays a role in improving the absorption of many different nutrients, but most of the time it is linked to vitamin C (18).

However, research has also indicated that this impact on bioavailability is not present across all types of nutrients.

For example, piperine appears to offer no benefits when paired with curcumin (19,20) in some studies, yet is considered by the majority of research to improve the absorption of curcumin.  If you include turmeric in your diet then adding black pepper to it couldn’t hurt.

There needs to be much greater research into this area as any impact on bioavailability or absorption could have dramatic impacts on the relationship between food and medications (21).

While food levels of black pepper are safe, it is important to talk to your primary healthcare professional if you plan to dramatically increase your level of black pepper consumption, particularly if you are on any prescription medication.

Because black pepper can increase bioavailability it can also potentially cause significant interactions with some medications and also between different medications (22).

One of the key health impacts of black pepper is its ability to influence the absorption of other nutrients

Black Pepper and Cancer

Showing x-rayThere are even some early indications that black pepper may help with inhibiting cancer.

One study on the topic found that piperine was able to impair the growth of a specific form of breast cancer cells (triple-negative cells) (23).

However, this study is only a very early examination of the topic, as it only considered the impact of piperine in vitro (which literally means in glass – i.e. not in any animal).

A second study found that piperine could suppress the growth of tumors both in vitro and in vivo (literally in life, as in, in an organism or a living thing) (24).

The outcomes of these studies indicate that piperine could potentially be developed as an antitumor or anticancer drug (25).

Researchers have also found similar outcomes for human breast cancer cells (26), for the cells in human colon cancer (27) and for cells in human osteosarcoma (a form of bone cancer) (28).

One of the ways that black pepper can do this is through piperine inhibiting a process called angiogenesis, which is one component of tumor progression (29).

What this means for dietary consumption of black pepper and cancer risk is less clear.

However, these outcomes do suggest that black pepper may reduce the risk of cancer or even provide a small benefit for people with cancer.

Black pepper is far from a miracle drug in this respect and may do absolutely nothing – as studies have not considered food-level black pepper consumption and cancer.

Yet, black pepper is safe to consume at food levels, so there is little risk in trying it out.

Early research suggests that black pepper may play a role in inhibiting cancer

Other Health Impacts

DepressionSome research has suggested that black pepper may also play a role in helping relieve depression (30).

This area has not been extensively studied, but one study indicated that supplementation with piperine had effects similar to anti-depressants (31).

Piperine has also been associated with reducing unpredictable biochemical and behavioral changes in rats as the result of stress (32).

While this was an animal study, it does suggest that similar outcomes may be observed in humans.

Other research has indicated that piperine can play a role in skin pigmentation, helping to restore pigment to skin that has lost it (such as in the disease vitiligo) (33).

Black pepper can also stimulate digestive enzymes, making digestive easier and decreasing digestive time (34).

An animal study has also revealed that piperine was able to reduce the level of insulin resistance and the buildup of fat in the liver (35).

Black pepper has also been linked to the management of hypertension and type 2 diabetes through the inhibition of key enzymes (36) and can potentially play a role in reducing pain and epileptic seizures (37).

Black pepper has also been associated with relieving depression, repairing skin pigmentation, decreasing insulin resistance and other health benefits

Limitations of Research

Black pepper is, unfortunately, one spice that has only been subject to a limited range of research – and much of that research has focused on theoretical perspectives or on animal models.

This means that there is still a lot that we don’t know about black pepper and black pepper health benefits, including many of the mechanisms of action.

Because the research into the field is still ongoing, it isn’t possible to say definitively that black pepper does have some, most or all of the health benefits that it is claimed to (38).

In fact, many different websites make claims about black pepper that aren’t actually based on any evidence at all.

Scientific Research Analyzing liquidsIn this article, I’ve attempted to talk about black pepper health benefits from the scientific perspective – focusing on the evidence that actually is out there.

Personally, I believe that there are  health benefits from black pepper even though many of these haven’t been validated by science. My own experiences with the spice have been positive, and I enjoy using it on my foods.

Nevertheless, the impacts of black pepper may be different for different people.

However, consuming food amounts of black pepper isn’t associated with significant risks or side effects.

So, getting into the practice of always putting freshly ground black pepper on your food may well give you some health benefits and certainly won’t cause any harm.

Although – you probably should avoid it if you are one of the rare people who are either allergic or hypersensitive to black pepper.

While there are potential health benefits of black pepper, the research is still in very early stages and much more work is needed

Making the Most of Pepper

Purchasing and Storing

The piperine in pepper is what gives the spice its distinctive flavor, and it is also what is associated with many of the health benefits of black pepper. Because of this – it is important to maximize the flavor of your pepper by making good choices about purchasing and storing.

Black pepper loses a lot of its aroma and flavor due to evaporation.

Peppercorn and pepper millThis makes it important to keep black pepper in an airtight location. Black pepper should also be stored away from the light, as the light can cause a chemical reaction that reduces the flavor of the compound.

It is also important to buy full peppercorns and grind them right before use – rather than getting pre-ground black pepper. This is important for getting the best flavor out of the pepper and minimizing the amount of evaporation.

Typically, pre-ground black pepper will have much less piperine than peppercorns that have just been ground.

This involves purchasing a pepper mill, but these are very common and very inexpensive.

Ideally, you would want to get one that isn’t made out of glass, to reduce how much light hits the pepper. If you do use one made of glass (or clear plastic), try to keep it out of the light as much as possible.

Keeping black pepper in a cool location is also desirable.

You don’t have to worry about using them quickly, as whole peppercorns can be stored for a long time.

You can even freeze black pepper, without affecting the black pepper health benefits. In fact, freezing black pepper can increase the flavor, which might or might not be desirable.

It’s also worth noting that the flavor of pepper will vary across companies and harvests. The site Serious Eats even did a detailed taste test on some of the different options. As such, you may want to try a few brands out until you figure out which you like the most.

Using Black Pepper

Girl cooking with pepper grinderContrary to popular belief, it is actually best not to use black pepper during cooking.

When heated, black pepper loses some of its flavor and aroma. In most cases you should add the spice after cooking, based on your liking.

This also means that black pepper is less effective as a seasoning when added during instead of after cooking.

The site Epicurious also offers some interesting information about how to get the most flavor benefits from black pepper when you are using it.

Ideally, black pepper should be ground right before use and stored in a dark, cool location

In Closing

All-in-all, black pepper is an interesting spice.

As you can see from this discussion, there really is potential for health benefits from using this spice. The key here is the piperine in pepper.

Research contunues into the topic, and is still in its very early stages and most of it is on animals rather than humans.

Sack of peppercornsThis makes it challenging to know exactly what role black pepper plays in health overall.

However, it’s important to note that this lack of knowledge is because of limited studies overall – not because there have been many studies finding no effect.

This is a really important distinction because it means that we simply do not know yet.

I’m not suggesting that you supplement with black pepper or that put extreme amounts of the spice on your food.

But, I am suggesting that including black pepper in your cooking and in your meals is a smart move.  I recommend a pepper mill and using freshly ground pepper when you can. Enjoy….

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