Known as the King of Spices, black peppercorns are the fruit of the flowering vine, Piper nigrum, which grow in long clusters known as drupes. These same berries also produce white or green peppercorns depending on how they are harvested and processed. Black peppercorns are the World’s most popular spice and, as well as being invaluable in the kitchen, black pepper offers numerous health benefits.
Black peppercorns versus green, white, pink and Sichuan peppercorns
When picked unripe, the fresh pepper berries are green, and these are quickly bottled, pickled or freeze-dried to preserve their delicate flavour and colour.
To produce white peppercorns, the fruit is allowed to ripen so its single seed develops. The dark outer layers of the fruit are then removed to leave just the naked seed, which is dried.
Green peppercorns have a delicate spiciness.
Black pepper has sharp, complex flavour due to high levels of an alkaloid called piperine, while white peppercorns have a softer, warmer more zesty heat.
Mignonette or Shot Pepper, is a made from a mixture of white and black corns.
Pink peppercorns are the almost-ripe berries of an entirely different plant, shrubs known as the Peruvian pepper tree or its close relative, the Brazilian pepper tree, and have a sharp, sweet almost smokey flavour.
Sichuan pepper is the berry of the mountain ash tree and has a pungent more bitter flavour that lacks of heat of true peppercorns.
Black Pepper Health Benefits
Black peppercorns contain a high level of antioxidant polyphenols – as many as 1000mg per 100g per weight. These contribute to their warm, sharp flavour, and the pleasant tingling they produce on the tongue.
Although black pepper is only used sparingly, there are still around 30mg polyphenols per teaspoon (5ml).
In contrast, white peppercorns supply around 20mg polyphenols per teaspoon, and green peppercorns just 10mg per teaspoon.
When ground, black pepper rapidly loses its aroma and health benefits, so always buy your peppercorns whole and freshly grind them when needed.
There are some fabulous looking pepper mills available, include electric versions that grind the peppercorns at the touch of a button. If you haven’t tried freshly-ground black pepper then you are in for a treat – it is so much more flavoursome than grounds that have been exposed to the air for days, or which were ground months ago and pre-packed. I set my grinder on the coarsest possible setting for maximum flavour. I even grind black pepper onto bread rolls and butter in a restaurant I’m so addicted to the flavour.
I also use a pestle and mortar to coarsly grind whole black peppercorns to add to curries and stews.
Black pepper piperine
Both white and black pepper contain an alkaloid called piperine which makes up 5% to 9% of its dried weight. This is present in freshly ground black pepper, and in the essential oil that can be extracted from black peppercorns.
Piperine is highly antioxidant and enhances the bioavailability of some medicines. Piperine is best known for its ability to boost the absorption of curcumin, from turmeric, by as much as 2000% (a forty-fold increase). Piperine achieves this by blocking the enzymatic breakdown (glucuronidation) of curcumin in the intestinal wall so that more is available for absorption. It may also affect the bioavailability of some prescribed drugs.
Black pepper and piperine are currently undergoing intensive research in the hopes of identifying new medicines to target neurological conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, depression and chronic pain.
Black pepper lowers cholesterol
The piperine in black pepper lowers a raised cholesterol level, partly by reducing its uptake across the intestinal wall. Recent research suggests that black pepper piperine may cause cholesterol transporter proteins to stay inside the cell rather than travel to the surface to collect cholesterol. This action is similar to that of the cholesterol-lowering drug, ezetimibe.
Black pepper may reduce smoking withdrawal symptoms
Inhaling black pepper essential oil vapour may help to suppress smoking withdrawal symptoms and the craving for cigarettes. This was tested in 48 cigarette smokers who puffed on a device that delivered a black pepper essential oil vapour, or a device supplying a mint/menthol vapour, or an empty cartridge. Cravings for a cigarette were significantly reduced in those using the black pepper vapour compared to the other two groups. Their mood also lifted and they experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety.
NB These were specially designed test devices. Only inhale black pepper essential oil using an aromatherapy diffuser to scent the room, or inhale the scent directly from the bottle. Do not add the oil to vaporisers that are designed to be inhaled like cigarettes. Do not bring undiluted black pepper oil into contact with the skin – it should always be diluted with a carrier oil for massage use.
Black pepper has antibacterial actions
When black pepper extracts were tested against 176 different strains of bacteria isolated from the mouth of 200 people, was actively antibacterial against 75% of them.
Black pepper may protect against bowel cancer
Black pepper piperine inhibits the growth of cancer cells in laboratory cultures, especially those derived from colon cancers. It appears to arrest the disordered cell cycles, and to promote the natural self-destruction mechanism (apoptosis) that normally causes abnormal cells to stop developing.
How to add black pepper to your diet
Add freshly ground black pepper to any savoury dish – it also enhances the flavour of strawberries. My favourite peppercorns come from the Kampot region of Cambodia, and are called KADODE (a Khmer word meaning ‘gift from the earth’).
Zesty white pepper goes well with seafood while smoky red pepper can provide a subtle accompaniment to both savoury and some sweet dishes.
How To Make The Best Ever Black Peppercorn Sauce Recipe
Try this simple Black Peppercorn Sauce which goes well with almost any savoury dish.