Nearly all culinary spices have some health benefits, but the top two found on nearly every table are salt and pepper. Salt is critical for life. Pepper isn’t quite so exalted as that, but it certainly does earn its place as the complement to so illustrious a partner.
Pepper comes from ground peppercorns, which are the dried unripe fruit of the piper nigrum vine. The active botanical ingredient responsible for pepper’s sharp, hot flavor is called piperine.
Black Pepper for Nutrient Absorption
Gram for gram, pepper is high in certain vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, iron, and Vitamin K, though of course in typical culinary doses, it’s not a significant source of these.
Where pepper really shines is in its ability to enhance absorption of the nutrients in the food it seasons.
It’s perhaps best known for aiding in the absorption of the popular anti-inflammatory herb, curcumin. This study shows that large doses of each (20 mg of piperine and 2 grams of curcumin) improved bioavailability of the latter by 2000%. This is why the two are often paired in curcumin supplements.
However, black pepper has a similar role with other nutrients, as well. This study shows that it also aids in absorption of iron and beta carotene, and it’s generally considered a botanical “driver,” assisting in micronutrient absorption generally.
Black Pepper for Digestion
Another great reason why black pepper earns its place on our tables is because piperine stimulates digestive juices, including salivary and pancreatic digestive enzymes as well as secretion of bile acids. It has even been shown to increase the small intestine’s capacity to absorb macronutrients.
Optimal digestion requires normal bowel transit, as well. This study shows that black pepper tends to slow bowel transit by contributing to healthy smooth muscle contractions in the intestines, thus decreasing any predisposition to diarrhea.
If your food carries any food-borne pathogens, pepper can also help to protect you against them, as it is also antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal.
Black Pepper for Weight Control and Blood Sugar Regulation
While black pepper aids in macronutrient and micronutrient absorption, in small doses (like we’d use on a typical dish prior to consumption), this animal study shows that it suppresses a postprandial glucose spike, helping to keep glucose levels balanced.
This alone should allow pepper to act as a mild aid in weight management. But this study also shows that it can hinder the genes that form new fat cells, interfering with their production. The extent to which pepper inhibits weight gain isn’t completely known, but at least it has a minor positive effect.
Black Pepper for Immune Modulation
This study reviews an impressive list of chronic diseases for which pepper has been shown to provide some therapeutic benefit, via modulation of a myriad of different biochemical pathways.
This implies that piperine works almost like a second messenger: in the same way that pepper acts as a “driver,” enabling greater nutrient absorption and digestion, it also seems to facilitate transmission of many of the signals that the body is already sending.
This study notes that piperine specifically modulates immune responses, too. Modulation is potentially more beneficial than direct stimulation in a system as complex as immune function, as a “sledgehammer” approach will not always be beneficial in every situation. (This is the reason why pharmaceuticals, which are usually metaphorical “sledgehammers,” always carry side effects: definitive action in one part of a complex system will invariably have unintended consequences somewhere up or downstream.)
Black Pepper as an Antioxidant
Like almost every herb, black pepper contains polyphenols that act as free radical scavengers, protecting you from oxidative stress.
Antioxidants are generally considered anti-cancer, since oxidative stress is one mechanism by which cancer develops.
Most of us keep dried, powdered herbs in our cabinets for convenience. Oxygen tends to degrade many of the active constituents over time, though, so if possible, it’s best to grind herbs and spices shortly before consuming them. This may not be practical for many spices, but fortunately, peppercorns and their corresponding grinders are easy to come by. This is certainly the best choice in terms of preserving medicinal activity.