Everyone knows that consuming too much salt is bad for your health. But no one ever mentions the potential impact of the other seasoning in the cruet: black pepper. Does it affect your health?
Of course, people through the ages have thought so. Black pepper, the dried berries of the black pepper vine has been part of traditional Indian medicine (Ayurvedic) for thousands of years. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that it has “carminative” properties, ie it relieves flatulence. And in traditional Chinese medicine, black pepper is used to treat epilepsy.
Modern science suggests that black pepper actually confers health benefits, mainly due to an alkaloid called piperine, the chemical that gives pepper its pungent flavor and a powerful antioxidant.
Antioxidants are molecules that absorb harmful substances called “free radicals”. An unhealthy diet, too much sun exposure, alcohol, and smoking can all increase the number of free radicals in your body. An excess of these unstable molecules can damage cells, making people age faster and causing a host of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, asthma and diabetes.
Laboratory studies on animals and cells have shown that piperine counteracts these free radicals. In one study, rats were divided into several groups, with some rats fed a normal diet and other rats fed a high-fat diet. One group of rats were fed a high-fat diet supplemented with black pepper and another group of rats were fed a high-fat diet supplemented with piperine.
Rats fed a high-fat diet supplemented with black pepper or piperine had significantly fewer free radical damage markers than rats freshly fed a high-fat diet. Indeed, their free radical damage markers were comparable to those of rats fed a normal diet.
Piperine also has anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is linked to a number of diseases, including autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Again, animal studies have shown that piperine reduces inflammation and pain in rats with arthritis.
Black pepper may also help the body absorb some beneficial compounds better, such as resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, berries and peanuts. Studies suggest that resveratrol may protect against heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
The problem with resveratrol, however, is that it tends to break down before the gut can absorb it into the bloodstream. Black pepper, however, has been found to increase the “bioavailability” of resveratrol. In other words, more is available for use by the body.
Black pepper can also improve the absorption of curcumin, which is the active ingredient in the popular anti-inflammatory spice turmeric. Scientists found that consuming 20 mg of piperine with 2 g of curcumin improved the availability of curcumin in humans by 2,000%.
Other studies have shown that black pepper can improve the absorption of beta-carotene, a compound found in fruits and vegetables that your body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene works as a powerful antioxidant that can fight cell damage. Research has shown that consuming 15 mg of beta-carotene with 5 mg of piperine significantly increases blood levels of beta-carotene compared to taking beta-carotene alone.
Piperine and cancer
Black pepper can also have anticancer properties. Test-tube studies have found that piperine reduces the reproduction of breast, prostate and colon cancer cells and encourages cancer cells to die.
The researchers compared 55 compounds from a variety of spices and found that piperine was the most effective in increasing the effectiveness of a typical treatment for triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive type of cancer.
Piperine also shows promise in minimizing multidrug resistance in cancer cells, which potentially reduces the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
A word of caution, though. All of these things are quite uncertain, as most of the studies have been done on cell cultures or animals. And these kinds of experiments don’t always “translate” for humans. However, you can be pretty sure that adding a few extra grinds of pepper to your food is unlikely to cause you harm and could be beneficial.