You may think of black pepper as one of the two shakers on your table when you sit down for a meal, but this ‘king of all spices’ offers many health benefits. What was once used as currency, a measure of wealth and standing and cause for wars is now valued for the depth of flavor it adds to foods, as well as its ability to aid in digestion, boost metabolism and weight loss, and even to fight cancer.
What Is Black Pepper?
Black pepper comes from a woody vine that is grown in tropical climates and can reach up to 33 feet tall. The plant doesn’t begin to bear fruit until it is three or four years old, then begins to flower and grow berries known as peppercorns. Most black pepper comes from Vietnam, though it may also be sourced from India, Brazil and Indonesia.
Though there are several different colors and types of peppercorns available, all come from the same plant: black peppercorns are picked before just before they mature and turn red. They turn black when they are picked and dried. The same peppercorns can be allowed to fully ripen on the plant, harvested and the skin peeled off to be sold as white peppercorn, or picked even earlier in the process, before they are ripe and when they are still green to yield green peppercorns. Of all the varieties of peppercorns, black pepper has the strongest flavor and is most widely available, in a variety of formats.
1. Black Pepper Contains Many Minerals, as Well as a Specific Nutrient with Multiple Benefits
It is challenging to think of black pepper as health food, since when we eat it we use such small quantities. But the fact that it is used only incrementally does not change the fact that it is dense in nutrients. If we were to consume an ounce of black pepper per day it would offer almost 80% of our recommended daily value (RDV) of manganese, 57% of our RDV of vitamin K, and 45% of our RDV of iron. Though nobody would every consume that much, it is still a strong indication that this humble spice offers tremendous health and nutritional benefits. One tablespoon of black pepper offers the following nutritional content:
Calories – 16
Protein – 0.7 grams
Fiber – 1.7 grams
Manganese – 0.4 mg (18% of RDV)
Vitamin K – 10.2 mcg (13% of RDV)
Iron – 1.8 mg (10% of RDV)
Copper – 0.1 mg (4% of RDV)
Calcium – 27.3 mg (3% of RDV)
Magnesium – 12.1 mg (3% of RDV)
Though we may not use enough of any spice to think of it as contributing to our health, the truth is that black pepper is a potent source of many essential nutrients, as well as a unique compound called piperine that offers numerous significant health benefits.
2. Black Pepper is a Potent Tool in the Fight Against Cancer
If you are familiar with hot peppers, then you probably are aware of capsaicin, a bioactive compound that has numerous health advantages. Black pepper contains a compound called piperine that is extremely similar to capsaicin in that it has been proven to cause cell death in cancer tumor cells and to prevent them from taking hold in various organs of the body. Piperine has proven to be particular effective in stopping colon cancer, and when combined with the spice turmeric, it can protect against cell mutations. Black pepper also contains a number of other vitamins, including Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and antioxidant properties that reverse the damaging effects of free radicals.
Bottom Line: Studies have shown that the active compounds in black pepper inhibit the growth of cancer cells, and can help to limit their spread and hasten cell death.
3. Black Pepper Improves the Digestive Process and Minimizes Heartburn and Indigestion
When our stomachs digest our food, they do so by releasing hydrochloric acid. When we eat black pepper, it triggers a mechanism in our taste buds to send a message to our stomachs, hastening this process and lowering the risk of heartburn and gas by making sure that our stomachs are empty and there is nothing to create gas or the heavy feeling of food sitting in our bellies. The faster the hydrochloric acid in our system is released, the faster the food we’ve eaten breaks down and the lower the risk of discomfort. Black pepper also minimizes the risk of gas forming in our intestines and promotes urination. In addition to helping our digestive process, it also helps to protect the cells in our colon from inflammation.
Bottom Line: Good digestion is essential to our quality of life. It helps us feel comfortable after we’ve eaten a meal, helps remove toxins from our bodies, and minimizes gas and heartburn.
4. Black Pepper Helps You Lose Weight
Burning more fat is the holy grail of weight loss, and the piperine in black peppers may speed and encourage that process. One study showed that when laboratory animals were fed high-fat diets at the same time that they were given piperine, the negative impacts of their diet were reduced. Their HDL levels were increased and their body weight, triglyceride levels, total cholesterol and fat mass decreased. Additionally, simply seasoning your food with black pepper can provide a high quality, quality taste alternative to heavy sauces that are loaded with fat and unnecessary calories.
Bottom Line: At the same time that black pepper boosts the flavor of your food, it may help your body process high fat foods more effectively and help you achieve your weight loss goal.
5. Black Pepper is A Powerful Anti-Inflammatory and Anti-Oxidant
The anti-Inflammatory compounds in black pepper can kill bacteria and fight off viruses. They have been shown to minimize the impact of the common cold, clear up chest congestion, and even help ease the symptoms of sinus infections. It can be used topically as an exfoliant to remove dead skin and promote blood circulation, and consuming it has been shown to minimize the impact of an autoimmune disease called vitiligo that causes the skin to lose its pigment. The antioxidants in black pepper can remedy damage caused by free radicals, protecting heart health, liver health, and maintaining the health of cells throughout the body. It has even been shown to help ease the symptoms of peptic ulcers.
Bottom Line: Black pepper contains compounds that inhibit the growth of several types of bacteria, fight inflammation, and prevent damage caused by oxidative stress.
6. Black Pepper Boosts Memory and Brain Processes
Numerous studies have pointed to piperine, the primary compound found in black pepper, as helping to minimize memory loss and improving the cognitive process. It is thought that pepper can open chemical pathways in the brain, reversing the effects of aging and stress. It has also been shown to reduce cravings and anxiety.
Bottom Line: Using black pepper in your food may keep your brain nimble and your memory sharp.
Tips for Buying Black Pepper and Adding It to Your Diet
Black pepper is best when it is fresh, so when you are ready to buy it, look for a source that is likely to sell a lot of them so that their stock turns over frequently. The best way to enjoy the most depth of taste is to buy whole peppercorns and then grind them in a pepper mill. You can also invest in a mortar and pestle to get a hearty, course version of this potent spice. Black pepper is a savory spice, but you can add it to sweet foods like teas and cakes to give them a kick of spice.