The next time the waiter asks you if you would like any pepper on your salad, think twice before you say no! As the world’s most traded spice, black pepper is certainly recognized for its potent flavor and the ability to elevate almost any savory dish. However, it’s not often recognized for its health benefits.
This simple table spice has been used for centuries as not just a food topping, but as a medicinal ingredient, because it works to reduce inflammation, as noted by the McCormick Science Institute. It contains plenty of beneficial plant compounds and a potent antioxidant called piperine, which gives black pepper its pungency. According to a review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, piperine can protect against oxidative damage in the body by inhibiting free radicals. For those who don’t know, free radicals are compounds created by natural body processes, such as the conversion of food into energy, that can cause a range of aging symptoms.
A study from the Redox Report also demonstrated how black pepper can reduce oxidative stress. Using a controlled experiment with five different groups, scientists found that rats consuming a high-fat diet experienced far less oxidative stress in their bodies when they were fed a black pepper supplement. Another study from Arthritis Research and Therapy found that piperine significantly reduced symptoms of arthritis, and lowered inflammation surrounding the ankle joints.
Black pepper may also improve the body’s ability to control blood sugar levels and reduce spikes. In a comparative study published in Hormone and Metabolic Research, rats that consumed piperine were able to better regulate glucose. In a different study from the Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica Journal, diabetic mice that were fed a moderate dose of piperine on a daily basis experienced a significant reduction in their blood glucose levels, in contrast to the control group. Yet another study from Pharmacognosy Research found that piperine in combination with an anti-diabetic drug lowered blood glucose levels more significantly than the drug alone.
Why might piperine act as an anti-diabetic agent? As researchers explained, the antioxidant is a bioenhancer, meaning it makes drugs more readily available in the body. It also helps improve digestion, which could translate to a better glucose-insulin balance. Researchers have noted, however, that a very high dose of black pepper could cause a spike in blood sugar levels due to its ability to increase absorption of nutrients. In effect, a moderate dose is best.
The piperine in black pepper may even be key to improving brain function. According to a report in the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal, the antioxidant may protect against degeneration in brain neurons, thereby reducing cognitive impairment in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Scientists note that piperine significantly boosted memory performance and lowered neurodegeneration in animals with Alzheimer’s disease. While more research is needed to confirm these findings, researchers believe that the antioxidant may improve dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Dopamine and serotonin play a key role in memory formation, so an increase in these two chemicals could enhance a person’s memory.
Which type of peppercorn is best if you want to consume high amounts of piperine? Though all peppercorns will vary in piperine content depending on where they were grown, black peppercorn contains some of the highest amounts of piperine. White peppercorn contains similar levels, and sometimes more. If you’re curious, white pepper is made from the same berries of the pepper plant as black pepper. The only difference is that the outer layer is removed. Other forms of pepper with high levels of the antioxidant include green and red peppercorn.
Whether you grind pepper onto your salad or sprinkle it into your favorite chicken dish, you now have the perfect excuse to load up your food with this tangy spice.