Most of us use it every day; many know little about pepper, a spice derived from the peppercorn, which is actually a fruit produced by the flowers of a vine.
Pepper is native to South India and Asia but is grown commercially in many tropical areas, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam is a major producer. Used for thousands of years both as a taste enhancer and medicine, pepper has the honor of being billed as the most-traded spice.
As a sign of how important it was and how widely traded, pepper from India reached Egypt before 1213 BCE, as it was found in the nostrils of the mummified Ramesses II, who died in that year.
It was also known in Greece by 400 BCE and had similarly long trading histories in
Rome, China, and many other areas.
At times in history, the value of pepper was weighed in gold, and it was even used as currency, a practice that survives in the term “peppercorn rent,” meaning a nominal payment to satisfy a contract.
This prized spice is produced on a large evergreen vine with oval- to heart-shaped leaves.
Vines climb to around 4m in height and maybe found scrambling up trees in their tropical homelands.
Pepper flowers are small and held in long, hanging clusters or spikes, which reach up to 15cm in length at maturity.
After the flowers come, clusters of small, green fruit transformed into the black powder in your pepper grinder.
Left to mature, the fruit turns yellow and finally ripens to red. Technically, the peppercorn is a drupe as it has a single seed inside the fleshy skin.
The enzyme piperine is responsible for the spicy taste.
HOW TO GROW PEPPER
If you live in the tropics or subtropics, it’s possible to grow a vine in your own garden and harvest your own pepper.
In cold climates, it can be grown in a glasshouse or conservatory. Pepper vines are vigorous and productive, and a single stem produces 20 to 30 spikes of fruit.
After roughly three years of growth, mature vine flowers and fruits twice a year, producing a bountiful harvest.
Erect the support in an area with light shade, protection from the hot afternoon summer sun, and good air ventilation.
Water well to establish and when times are dry. Overhead watering is useful in aiding pollination and flowering and keeping the vine’s aerial roots moist.
Mulch the roots with compost and fertilize annually.
The plants can be grown from seed or cutting, but the latter is preferable to maintain good cultivars.
HARVESTING AND PROCESSING
Pepper is available as a ground spice, or the peppercorns can be ground in a pepper grinder or pepper mill, which ensures the freshest pepper flavor.
Next time you twist your pepper grinder, think about the journey that it has made from the vine to your table. Black pepper is actually unripe fruit harvested green and dried, traditionally in the sun.
As the round green fruit dries, it shrivels and turns black. The peppercorn is then used whole, ground, or powdered.
To maintain the best flavor, store peppercorns in an airtight container and grind them as needed.
White pepper is made from ripe pepper and is hotter than black pepper.
To produce white pepper from red fruit, the fruit is soaked in water and red skin removed.
Then the fruit is bleached and dried and can be used whole, ground, or powdered. Green pepper, like black pepper, is made from immature fruit, which is pickled rather than dried.
Green pepper is sold pickled in jars or freeze-dried. Pink or red pepper is made from the
ripe red berries, which are stored in brine.
Black pepper plants are available for sale in tropical and subtropical areas.
Pepper is a common name applied to many plants other than the true pepper plant, Piper nigrum.
In many parts of the world, chilies and capsicums are called peppers though they have nothing to do with true pepper but provide a range of (usually red) spices such as cayenne
pepper and chili powder.
Closer in appearance to black pepper are the seeds of a tree widely known in Australia as the pepper tree, which no doubt many people assume provides black pepper.
This green, medium-sized tree with weeping, pepper-scented leaves are well adapted to hot, dry conditions and often seen as shade or street trees in inland areas.
The fruit can be used as a pepper-like spice known as South American pink pepper (pictured).
Another “pepper” gaining recognition is Tasmanian pepper berry (Tasmannia lanceolata), a shrub that produces small black peppery berries that are dried and used like pepper.
The leaves, too, have a peppery flavor.
The benefit of this pepper is that it can be grown in cool to temperate climates, unlike true tropical black pepper.
Still, another pepper is Szechuan or Chinese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum). Also harvested from a tree, it has a very hot, mouth-numbing flavor.
Beware, however, of fake pepper, which can be concocted from clay and chili.
Piperine, a component of black pepper and other pepper seasonings, such as white pepper, green pepper, and long pepper.
Beyond its uses in food preparations, piperine also has various medicinal uses, including as a painkiller, an antioxidant, and an anti-inflammatory agent.
It has also been shown to have anticancer properties.
Piperine is a component of the pepper plants Piper nigrum and Piper longum.
The fruits of both plants are dried and crushed to make seasonings. When dried, the fruits of Piper nigrum are called peppercorns.
Peppercorns are crushed to produce black pepper, green pepper, and white pepper seasonings.
The common name of Piper longum is long pepper or Indian long pepper. Its seeds are much smaller than those of Piper nigrum, but they are similarly dried to produce seasonings.
The fruits of both plants contain piperine, which gives them their pungency.
Fruits of some other pepper plants, such as the West African pepper (Piper guineense), have also been shown to contain piperine.
Piperine is an alkaloid. Alkaloids are nitrogen-containing compounds.
Many alkaloids, including piperine, have medicinal uses, some of which have been supported by scientific studies.
For example, researchers have demonstrated that piperine has properties with potential benefits for treating various cancers and possibly reducing the risk of developing aging-related neurodegenerative disorders.
A 2019 study detailed in Current Medical Chemistry noted that piperine might reduce cancer risks by enhancing antioxidant systems, increasing detoxifying enzymes, inhibiting cell proliferation, and killing cancer cells.
A 2018 study described in Neuroscience Research showed that piperine enhanced the neuroprotective action of quercetin (a common flavonoid) through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities and by preventing neurotransmitter alterations.
Alternative medicine practitioners use piperine and black peppercorns, usually crushed but also as ingredients in topical preparations, as reputed treatments for a wide range of health-related conditions.
These uses include improving the appetite and aiding digestion, easing constipation and other stomach ailments, and treating such diverse conditions as anemia, colic, diabetes, colds, sore throats, toothaches, syphilis, and many other ailments.
Some practitioners also recommend black pepper as an aphrodisiac.
While most of these claims are not verified by modern research, a 2018 study outlined in the journal Drug Research noted that piperine assisted in transporting curcuminoids (from turmeric) to reduce blood glucose in diabetes.
Dried pepper fruits have been used in traditional medicine for many years, but it was not until 1819 that piperine was discovered.
When Hans Christian Ãrsted of Denmark isolated the compound from the fruits of P. nigrum.Ãrsted is better known, however, for his discovery of electromagnetism, a fundamental force of nature.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the health benefits of piperine.
For instance, piperine is effective as an anti-inflammatory and to have antiarthritic benefits in vitro (in lab tests) and animal models.
Research has also shown that piperine, along with curcuminoids, decreases lipids, glucose, and cholesterol levels in the blood. It is therefore helpful in treating individuals who have hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and high cholesterol.
Some studies have demonstrated that piperine has anticancer activity.
It has been reported to inhibit the spread of melanoma cells (melanoma is a form of skin cancer) and fibrosarcoma cells (fibrosarcoma is a cancerous tumor that originates in the connective tissue of the arms or legs).
Research on a mouse model has shown that it is potentially effective in fighting lung cancer, and studies of cell lines (a population of cells derived and developed from primary cell culture) indicate that it impedes the development of melanoma and lung cancer and also inhibits the proliferation of colon cancer cells.
A 2019 study published in the journal Anticancer Research showed that piperine suppressed the growth of human melanoma cells by the induction of apoptosis (cell death).
The researchers concluded that piperine is an effective antitumor compound in vitro and in vivo and can develop as a new anticancer drug for humans.
Another property of piperine has drawn great interest. That is its ability to enhance the bioavailability of other compounds, including drugs.
Bioavailability is the ability of a drug or other substance to be absorbed and used by the body at the target site.
This is an important consideration because many orally taken drugs can pass through the body, with only a small portion of the dosage being absorbed and affected.
Studies have shown that piperine boosts the bioavailability of different substances.
A study reported piperine’s effects on the bioavailability of resveratrol, a compound found in grapes, red wine, and many other plants.
Resveratrol has several health benefits, including the prevention of coronary heart disease.
For the study, researchers administered piperine and resveratrol together and found that the combination significantly improved the bioavailability of resveratrol when compared to the administration of resveratrol alone.
Researchers have also shown that piperine helps absorb the compound curcumin (a component of the Indian spice turmeric).
In one study, a research group investigated the combination of piperine and curcumin for its potential benefit in fighting the aging process.
In research published in Brain Research, scientists used a chronic exposure of the sugar D-galactose in mice to replicate such human aging–related pathological changes as the deterioration of learning and memory and the increase in production of highly reactive and damaging molecules, called free radicals, in the brain.
The scientists then added piperine and curcumin to the mouse diets.
Both piperine and curcumin are antioxidants, which deter the production of free radicals and together exhibit several other properties, including protection of nerves and other cells from damage and boosting cognition.
Results of the study demonstrated that the curcumin-piperine combination thwarted the production of free radicals and markedly improved memory as well as sensory and motor capabilities.
They concluded, “incorporation of these antioxidants might reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders, an important counterpart of advancing age.”
Similar bioavailability-enhancing effects have been reported with combinations of piperine and other drugs and substances.
One study found that piperine has potential as a treatment for obesity and obesity-related health problems.
In the study, which appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers found that piperine and black pepper extract both interfered with the genes that regulated the generation of fat cells and therefore blocked new fat cells from forming.
They conducted their work using lab studies and computer models to track the role and the effect of piperine and concluded that piperine was a potential treatment for obesity-related diseases.
Beyond these health benefits, research continues to verify piperine’s actions and possibly discover new benefits and gain a better understanding of exactly how it functions in the body.
Piperine is typically sold in capsule form, or black pepper is added to food.
Individuals should inform and consult with their doctors before beginning a piperine regimen.
When taken at high doses (50 mg a day or more), some patients have reported nausea, diarrhea, and indigestion.
Individuals should check with a doctor because there may be drug interactions. Piperine can potentiate the bioavailability of certain substances.
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