BLACK PEPPER: A HOT SPICE

DR. S. M. ALAM
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)

Feb 20 - 26, 2012

Black pepper is a flowering vine, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. The fruit, known as a peppercorn when dried, is approximately five millimeters (0.20 in) in diameter dark red when fully mature, and, like all drupes, contains a single seed.

Peppercorns, and the powdered pepper derived from grinding them, may be described simply as pepper or more precisely as black pepper (cooked and dried unripe fruit), green pepper (dried unripe fruit), and white pepper (dried ripe seeds).

Black pepper is native to India and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. Currently, Vietnam is the world's largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34 per cent of the world's Piper nigrum.

Dried ground pepper has been used since antiquity for both its flavor and as a medicine. Black pepper is the world's most traded spice. It is one of the most common spices added to European cuisine and its descendants.

The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine. It is ubiquitous in the industrialized world, often paired with table salt.

Black pepper comes from the pepper plant, a smooth woody vine that can grow up to 33 feet in hot and humid tropical climates. They begin to bear small white clustered flowers after 3 to 4 years and develop into berries known as peppercorns. Ground peppercorns produce the spice we call pepper.

Black pepper often referred as "king of spice" is a popular spice known to the world since ancient times. The peppercorn plant is native to tropical evergreen rain forest of South Indian state, Kerala, from where it spreads to rest of the world. The Pepper fruit, also known as peppercorn, is actually a berry obtained from this plant.

Botanically, peppercorn belongs to the family of piperaceae of the genus of piper; and known scientifically as Piper nigrum. This perennial vine and climber requires supporting tree or pole to grow in height; thus has similar growth characteristics that of beetle leaf plant. It begins to bear small round berries after about three to four years of implantation. Technically, the pepper fruit is a drupe, measuring about five mm in diameter, containing single large seed at its center.

Black pepper comes from the berries of the pepper plant. Black pepper, green pepper, and white peppercorns are actually the same fruit (Piper nigrum); the difference in their color is a reflection of varying stages of development and processing methods. Black peppercorns are made by picking the pepper berries when they are half-ripe and just about to turn red. They are then left to dry which causes them to shrivel and become dark in color. Alternatively, green peppercorns are picked while still unripe and green in color, while white peppercorns are picked when very ripe and subsequently soaked in brine to remove their dark outer shell leaving just the white pepper seed. Black pepper is the most pungent and flavorful of all types of peppers and it is available as whole or cracked peppercorns or ground into powder.

Native to India, pepper has played a very important role throughout history and has been a prized spice since ancient times. Since ancient Greece, pepper has held such high prestige that it was not only used as a seasoning but as a currency and a sacred offering.

Pepper was used to both honor the gods and to pay taxes and ransoms. During the fall of ancient Rome, the invading barbarians were even honored by being given black pepper.

Additionally, in the Middle Ages the wealth of a man was oftentimes measured by his stockpile of pepper. Pepper became an important spice that catalyzed much of the spice trade. This not only led to exploration of many undiscovered lands, but also to the development of major merchant cities in Europe and the Middle East.

VARIETIES:

Black pepper is produced from the still-green unripe drupes of the pepper plant. The drupes are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. The heat ruptures cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The drupes are dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn. On some estates, the berries are separated from the stem by hand and then sun dried without the boiling process.

HEALTH BENEFITS OF BLACK PEPPER:

* Peppercorns contain impressive list of plant derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. Peppers have been in use since ancient times for its anti-inflammatory, carminative, anti-flatulent properties.

* Peppercorns are composed of many health benefiting essential oils such as piperine, an amine alkaloid, which gives strong spicy pungent character to the pepper. It also contains numerous monoterpenes hydrocarbons such as sabinene, pinene, terpenene, limonene, mercene etc. that give aromatic property to the pepper.

* The above-mentioned active principles in the pepper may increase the motility of the gastro-intestinal tract as well as increase the digestion power by increasing gastro-intestinal enzyme secretions. It has also been found that piperine can increase absorption of selenium, B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene, as well as other nutrients in the food.

* Black peppercorns contain good amount of minerals like potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that help controlling heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese is used by the body as a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for cellular respiration and blood cell production.

* They are also excellent source of many vital B-complex groups of vitamins such as Pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamin and niacin.

* Peppercorns are rich source of many anti-oxidant vitamins such as vitamin-C and vitamin-A. They are also rich in flavonoid polyphenolic anti-oxidants like carotenes, cryptoxanthin, zea-xanthin and lycopene. These compounds help body remove harmful free radicals and help protect from cancers and diseases.

MEDICINAL USES:

* Peppers have been used therapeutically in dentistry as an antiseptic for tooth-decay and gum swellings.

* Peppercorns are also being used in traditional medicines in treating flatulence and indigestion in traditional medicine, but there is little or no data to support these claims in modern medicine.

CULINARY USES:

* Black pepper is one of the most versatile spices used in virtually all savory cooking. In order to keep the fragrance and flavor intact, it is generally ground just before preparing dishes and added at the last minutes in the recipes (because prolonged cooking results in evaporation of essential oils).

The various uses of black pepper oil as follows:

* Black pepper is an anti-diuretic that regulates the process of excretion, thereby regulating the overall health of kidneys.

* Black pepper oil is an antiseptic agent as well, and it may be used against various infections including colds and the flu. Black pepper oil is also used in the treatment of bronchitis.

* Black pepper oil may be used in the treatment of body aches. Black pepper oil has anti-inflammatory properties, and hence, it may be used against rheumatism, arthritis, and muscle pain.

* Black pepper oil is a mental stimulant and may be used to relieve tension and stress. It helps in increasing alertness, thereby increasing attention span and concentration.

* Black pepper oil also helps in increasing stamina by improving blood flow and circulation.

* Black pepper essential oil may also be used in curing ailments of the teeth and gums. Its anti-inflammatory properties help to relieve pain and inflammation of the gums.

* Black pepper oil is an excellent tonic for the body. It also helps in raising the count of the red blood cells in the blood, thereby relieving conditions like anemia.

* Black pepper oil also helps in relieving problems related to the digestive system like indigestion and constipation. It may be also be used to help with loss of appetite. Black pepper oil is also effective against diarrhea.

* Black pepper oil is also used for cosmetic purposes. The essential oil can be used for body massages in order to improve blood circulation. It is also used as an ingredient in soaps and perfumes. Black pepper oil is highly effective in the treatment of many conditions and ailments and in most cases poses little to no risk, as it is non-sensitizing and free from any kind of irritant or toxin.