The next time you politely dismiss the fresh cracked pepper on offer at your favourite corner bistro, you may want to pause and reconsider.
The humble peppercorn, so routinely used that we barely even consider it a spice worth mentioning, has several health benefits. In fact, so convincing were its perceived strengths in ancient times that it was thought of as the King of Spices and prized as currency.
If flavour and bite are not enough, here are 9 science-based health reasons not to pass on the pepper:
1) Pepper is a good source of manganese
The trace mineral manganese is important for blood sugar maintenance, antioxidant capacity and bone and skin health, particularly collagen production (take that ageing!). 2 teaspoons of black pepper offer 37% of the recommended daily intake of manganese, a respectable amount from an everyday spice.
2) Pepper fights fat
Piperine, a bioactive compound present in black and green pepper (and to a lesser degree in white pepper) fights body fat, reducing lipid levels in the bloodstream of animals fed a high fat diet (1). Moreover, piperine appears to suppress the formation of new fat cells (2).
3) Pepper inhibits cancer
Piperine kills cancer cells by activating their ability to self-destruct (3). It blocks the growth of breast, prostate and colorectal cancers and improves the effect of chemotherapy (4, 5, 6). Piperlongumine, found in a type of pepper called long pepper, kills cancer cells by blocking their ability to resist the stresses that go hand in hang with their hallmark, uncontrolled growth. (7).
4) Pepper boosts mood and brain health
Piperine in black pepper reduces the symptoms of depression in animal studies (8). The compound appears to elevate the feel good hormone, serotonin, in the brain although human trials remain to be conducted (9). Piperine also prevents the destruction of dopaminergic neurons in animal models of Parkinson's disease (10)
5) Pepper makes meat less carcinogenic
Pepper and turmeric reduce the oxidation of lipids in cooked meat patties, preventing the production of toxic compounds that contribute to red meat's cancer-causing effects (11). The next time you light up the BBQ, don't forget to use your pepper mill (and some turmeric) on your burgers.
6) Pepper blocks inflammation
Unwanted chronic inflammation is at the root of several modern diseases. Piperine from pepper inhibits the central inflammation regulator in arthritis, a molecule called NF-kB (12). In the same vein, piperine has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect in irritable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Helicobacter pylori-induced gastric ulcers in animals (13, 14).
7) Pepper boosts the absorption of turmeric
Turmeric is trending and for good reason. This magical spice has umpteen health benefits (15). Unfortunately, turmeric's active compound, curcumin is poorly absorbed because the liver clears it rapidly. Piperine in pepper can inhibit the liver-mediated elimination of curcumin (and other drugs), enhancing their availability and effectiveness in the body (16). It's no surprise then that many traditional recipes like curry powder call for turmeric to be used in conjunction with pepper.
8) Pepper aids digestion
Piperine stimulates the production of stomach acid, aiding in the digestion and breakdown of food (17). It also activates pancreatic enzymes that help process carbohydrate, protein and fat and reduces the time it takes for food to pass through the digestive tract (18). It can calm diarrhea symptoms in animal models, supporting its use as a digestive aid in ancient medical systems (19).
9) Pepper kills nasty bacteria
Black pepper inhibits the disease causing ability of pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (20). Piperine enhances the ability of traditional antibiotics to penetrate stubborn layers, known as biofilms, of E.coli bacteria. (21). This could explain why our ancestors used pepper to prevent food spoilage!
Now familiar with the power of pepper, you may be tempted to ingest fistfuls of the spice. But beware as too much of a good thing isn't always beneficial.
In animal studies, large doses of piperine have been linked to miscarriages and abortions in pregnancy (22). Also, while pepper has cancer-fighting compounds mentioned above, it also contains a molecule called safrole which can promotes cancer in some animal models (although whether or not it's a carcinogen in humans is still debated) (23).
Your best best is to stick to culinary quantities of the spice to enjoy the flavour and benefits while avoiding potentially deleterious consequences. Therapeutic effects also require large quantities of piperine and pepper so it's best viewed as a preventative for diseases like cancer, rather than a cure.
As for that sprinkling of fresh cracked pepper on your pasta? Go for it.