Is Black Pepper Really All it's Cracked Up to Be?

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

Ah, Black Pepper, Piper nigrum: the king of spices. It is said that at one point, its weight was worth more than gold. Whether in its whole peppercorn form, or ground, it has a crowning place at many an American table.


How many recipes finish with: “Salt and Pepper to taste”? It’s like a CYA in the culinary world, and it seems it has been for some time.

Is black pepper good for you, Is black pepper good for health, healthy

Now there are rumors circulating that we may even see “Pepper Water” for sale in stores!


Because boiling your own peppercorns in water at home is SO last century. Come on.


<Cue Millennials crying over their lack of $ because: pepper water>


(Actually Millennials, it’s because you gave up on avocado toast, or you’re unnecessarily spending loads on organic avocados for your avo-toast.)


Details on how buying avocados will actually save you grocery $.

There’s some controversy over pepper water: is this just another fad or is there merit to the claims?


Here is a popular video that boasts purported benefits of black pepper water.


The video primarily promotes piperine as the main reason for these health-claims.

Here are a few of the health-benefit claims it lists from consuming black pepper:

It burns fat; promotes weight loss; improves metabolism; stops fat cells from growing; improves digestion; reduces flatulence and bloating; aphrodisiac; increases sweating, heart-rate and blood circulation; helps prevent cancer, heart problems, liver diseases; helps people eat less salt; analgesic muscle and joint pain relief; antidepressant; improves cognitive ability; in high amounts may irritate the stomach and intestinal lining.


There is a lot wrong with this video, including a number of the above claims that are flat-out not supported by research, particularly not any research in humans.


As a general rule, I consider it a red-flag whenever I see a phrase like “prevents cancer” or “prevents XYZ serious illness”. Let’s see – if black pepper prevented cancer (as the video claims) – then why aren’t we all poppin’ pepper like our lives depended on it??


Beware of major claims out there. If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Look for solid research, do your due-diligence. I’m not referring to Dr. Google.


Is drinking pepper water beneficial? Here's my take on it:


Research shows us that boiling peppercorn in water, and drinking it, just isn’t going to give us all the beneficial compounds that we want from black pepper. Although, it will probably increase gastric juices in your stomach, and we’ll touch on that later.


black pepper water, black pepper, hot water, homemade, antioxidant water

The studies that draw connections between black pepper and diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression, cancer, epilepsy, and diabetes plus weight loss, use a much more rigorous method of extraction.


Basically, you’d need a hefty home lab for intense steam or methanol extraction, plus pure peppercorns. And I don’t mean Grandma’s teapot steam either. I talk a bit about this below.

Most of the research out there is performed on animals, or cells that have been extracted from animals, and infrequently cells from humans. We need a lot more research in actual humans, particularly using the gold standard “random clinical control trials”.


We’re a pretty complex bunch. There are a lot of folks taking medications, and these drugs may not play well with black pepper in general, let alone as a supplement. I briefly touch on drug-pepper interactions below.


Essentially, the existing research highlights a lot of ways that black pepper does benefit animals and extracted cells. While some show promising results, there are still inadequate human studies.

Let’s not diminish the existing research but rather look at it through a critical lens with optimism, keeping our eyes open for evidence-based research in humans with indisputable benefits to bank on.


What we can currently bank on, is a plethora of research promoting a diverse diet that is rich in a variety of delicious plants. There are so many phytochemicals and other micronutrients that scientists have yet to discover!


healthy diet, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, weight loss diet

Might as well diversify your meal-plan and increase your chances of ingesting multiple helpful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.


Do I plan to drink black pepper water?


No. I do not plan to incorporate black pepper water into my daily routine.


Research shows us that if we want to tap into the potential benefits of the “king of spice”, we ought to either incorporate it into our food (during or after cooking), or look for potent and pure supplements, like this essential oil by Young Living.


Boiling peppercorn in water just ain't gonna cut it.


So: what is the truth behind these pepper promos? What exactly is in those shiny black kernels…that I need?


Turns out a lot of the hot hype has been over “Piperine”, a key alkaloid found in black pepper that is largely responsible for the pungency of the fruit. We’ll get to potency potential in a minute.


Animal and cell-culture studies suggest that Piperine gets the medal for its anti-inflammatory properties.1 It is unclear whether it is primarily piperine or piperine and other black pepper constituents, that lead many to draw a connection between black pepper and diseases such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, cancer and depression.2


How Does Black Pepper Work?


The modus operandi is multi-fold, from transport-protein modulating,

enzyme enhancing (or – blocking), to boosting our body’s own natural defense “powerhouse” free-radical scavenging enzymes, like superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione reductase (GR), and altering brain-boosters like neurotrophic factors or stopping bacterial growth.3



Interestingly, a fairly comprehensive meta-analysis suggests that the majority of existing animal and cell research points to the diversity of compounds in black pepper as major contributors to predicted human health benefits – not just Piperine.3


Also, there are some interesting reads about the reported effects of Piper nigrum essential oil extract on inflammation, oxidation, and even the sensory nervous system in rodents.4,5


Well-known is the connection between turmeric’s curcuminoid anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant activity that is enhanced by black pepper’s piperine (which basically blocks an enzyme from stopping curcumin absorption, and stops a transport protein from hauling it to the dump).1


Turmeric and Black Pepper, Synergistic, cooking spices, anti-inflammatory

Existing research for black pepper, while mostly non-human studies, may help clarify potential mechanisms for future application in humans.


Onward.


Weight loss and Type 2 Diabetes


Some suggest that piperine may be beneficial for weight loss and thereby assist in the obesity and type-2 diabetes epidemic - although again - at the micro-level, or in animals.


Hemoglobin A-1c (HbA1c) is a standard test to check how much blood sugar (glucose) is stuck to a person’s primary blood protein (albumin). It is typically performed to help diagnose diabetes, or to check-up (every 3 months) on how well someone with diabetes has been managing their blood sugar.


Researchers point to piperine’s ability to help inhibit the process of glucose locking onto protein in the blood; the fancy term is “albumin glycation”.6 We don't want albumin glycation.


Glucose, blood sugar, glycation, HbA1c, albumin and sugar,

They also found that piperine disrupts the formation of other dangerous sugar-protein compounds in the blood, called “advanced glycation end products” or AGEs.

AGEs are linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), among other diseases.7,8

Researchers argue that piperine helps with weight loss and therefore, diabetes management.

How? Via using piperine to excite specific resting muscle cells to burn fuel.


This study was performed on fast-twitch muscle cells that were extracted from rabbits. 2

Fast-twitch muscles? Think sprinters, versus long-slow-distance runners that primarily use slower-twitch muscles.


Essentially, researchers are saying: muscle cells are agitated by piperine so they burn more sugar, which generates more energy and helps with weight loss, all while the animal is resting. Sounds pretty good, in theory.

target fat cells, target muscle cells, target practice

Unfortunately, one of the biggest dilemmas in replicating this in an actual rabbit, is getting the piperine to the target muscle cells.


It might be something similar to chucking a basketball at an archery target 500 feet away, and expecting to hit it. (That’s more than 5 basketball court lengths. In a row.)

Researchers concluded that since piperine has a low affinity for targeting a specific binding location (like the fast-twitch muscle cells), it would be very difficult to create a supplement to accomplish this in humans; and do so without potentially causing harm at the high doses that are needed for effect.


A Mock Mockup


For fun, let’s say we were able to replicate this study in actual humans.

(Not cultured human cells.)


Perhaps we use a sort of nano-particle or combine piperine with a substance that has a high affinity for the target (and the two don’t split up until the target is reached).


Assuming similar ratio of skeletal muscle mass and fast-twitch muscle fibers in humans, rabbits, and rats, then we would have to ingest about 10 tablespoons of ground black pepper (plus whatever additional amount from the pretend nanoparticles that are needed to reach the muscle).1,2

For reference, here’s a picture of a 1 oz bottle of McCormick’s whole black peppercorn.

If we grind it fresh ourselves, then we would need two and a half of these bottles.


Basically, we’d need a pharmaceutical-level supplement of piperine on a trained nano-particle.

And what of the side-effects? Would our brains respond by increasing the hunger-hormone (ghrelin) and hunger peptides?

If so, we’d probably end up consuming more calories that would offset the predicted weight-loss benefit from piperine.


Is this really a potential solution in humans to mediate type 2 diabetes and obesity, for the long-run? (To speak nothing of the health benefits of an actual active lifestyle).


I’ll let you answer that.


And what if there’s more than just black pepper’s piperine at work here?

DIY: Black Pepper Water: How effective is this stuff anyway?


While boiling fresh-cracked kernels (and straining out the pepper) might give you a better outcome than using whole kernels, this is likely a faulty extraction method if you aim to reap all the benefits of black pepper by drinking this water.


A lot of the beneficial compounds may actually be lost in the steam vapor.9


Research suggests that perhaps the closest method of extraction (also the standard for essential oil quality control) is via steam distillation, using The Clevenger System. The what system?


Clevenger, steam, black pepper water, boiling spices, weight loss
Credit: Microsoft Word ClipArt

Basically, a special device that operates by 1) boiling, 2) condensing the steam released from boiling, and 3) decanting this steam to extract the oil.9


Friends, this is not your ordinary teakettle steam system.

It is highly concentrated and enclosed in a rigorous system for optimal potency yield potential. Also, let’s not forget the importance of ensuring a safe source for obtaining the black pepper kernels.


To reap the benefits of such a system, one would probably need to forgo their DIY approach for a professional-grade extract.


I did find one study that attempted black pepper extraction via boiling, but then they used evaporation to isolate a concentrated amount of black pepper resin and didn’t get the results they’d hoped.10


Although drinking black pepper water may stimulate gastric juices (for safety reasons, you don’t actually drink the kernels), many sought-after compounds in black pepper may not be sufficiently released unless extracted via more powerful systems, like via steam and methanol, or by your own digestive system when eaten in cracked or ground form.9,1,11


For optimal potency – the way I see it: either buy a professional grade extract, or grind and add your own cracked peppercorns to food. In moderation. (If cleared by MD/PharmD)

…So back to those 10 tablespoons of cracked black pepper…


First: Ew


Y’all, I love me some cracked black pepper.

I’ll admit that I eat nearly a teaspoon of it on every meal that I can because I enjoy the flavor!

But 10+ tablespoons of the stuff, with scarce affinity for my desired target cells and outcome is not only undesirable, it may be dangerous. (For starters, inhaling ground or cracked black pepper can cause lung constriction and tragically, people have actually died from this.12)


Second: Caution


Piperine has been shown in cell studies, later modeled in humans, to inhibit the liver enzyme CYP1A2 – which is key to breaking down external toxins and drugs, including caffeine, as well as the CYP3A4 enzyme and several others that process drugs.2,13


The list of potential medication interactions is a long one.


I’ve included a separate section (below) with a list that begins to outline some reasons for caution. Additionally, there are a lot of different foods and beverages that may alter the activity of these liver enzymes, so exercising caution and due-diligence will pay off.


Drugs, Medication Food Interactions, Spices and Food, Spices and Medication, Pharmacist

It is a good idea to check with your MD and pharmacist whether or not you need to avoid black pepper entirely, or use it in moderation and forego the extracts.


Essential Oils


Purified oil extracts of black pepper may be a helpful source of the potent compounds found in black pepper, without consuming all of those tablespoons. 5,3,1 Remember: largely animal and cell studies, and more human studies are needed.


Be sure to pay attention to the sourcing of essential oils to avoid harmful contaminants and ensure potency, and double check with your physician to get clearance before taking these. Notably, most essential oils have teeny tiny drop serving sizes.


To my knowledge, Young Living is the only essential oil company that is approved for consumption. It looks like they have a “Black Pepper Vitality” essential oil on the market.


IF one were cleared by their physician or qualified health professional to take black pepper essential oil, Young Living says that this one is okay for consumption. (note their teeny-tiny drop dose.) *There is not enough research to support safe use during pregnancy or lactation.


Digestion


A number of studies reference black pepper’s ability to stimulate the stomach’s production of stomach acid: HCl (hydrochloric acid).3


HCl helps in the process of breaking down food, and when the food leaves the stomach and enters the top of the small intestine, the now acidic and partly digested food (called “chyme”) triggers the release of other digestive enzymes that further promote digestion. Better digested food is typically more easily absorbed. So, in effect, pepper may help increase food absorption.


Digestion, stomach, black pepper, intestines, nutrient absorption, food changes, liver, drugs
Microsoft Word ClipArt: Modified by Dana Ketter

Other proposed mechanisms from animal and cell studies, are the induction of specific liver and intestinal enzymes that may further promote digestion, absorption, and break-down of some toxic chemicals. Alternatively, black pepper may work by altering transport protein pathways: changing the way nutrients are absorbed, used, or even moving communication signals around between cells.3,1,11


In fact, researchers suggest that, since the phytochemicals aren't absorbed into the bloodstream from the intestines as easily as vitamins C and E (antioxidants), these ‘phytos’ hang out in and around the enterocytes (gut wall cells) and help scavenge free-radicals there! 11 ... bonus.


Notably, researchers are referring to the many different kinds of foods that we eat (I’ll add oils too, like perilla oil and olive oil), that promote a diversity of antioxidant-rich phytochemicals at work.


I am all about promoting a diverse diet that is rich in all sorts of different phytochemicals.


farmers market, healing spices, healing foods, black pepper, berries, cherries, vegetables, antioxidants
Yes, black pepper has its fare share of highly potent beneficial compounds, but let’s not be too narrow sighted to miss the forest in spite of this plant.

A diverse diet, rich in many different fruits, vegetables and other plants, is the key to promoting the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects sought after from black pepper.14,15,16,17**


(**And so so many other articles.) There is not enough page space to cite the world of research there. Here’s a great book about it: What Color is Your Diet?



TRUE or FALSE: “Piperine is the primary great anti-oxidant in black pepper.”


Whole Black Pepper, peppercorn, healing herbs, healing spices

FALSE

Wut.


Yes, friends. You’ve probably read a plethora of bloggers mistakenly attribute piperine to being the primary essential element in black pepper for all of your free-radical-scavenging health needs. Science tells us that we just can’t conclude this right now!


There are so many compounds in black pepper that work synergistically as antioxidants and have yet to be studied in as much rigor as piperine.


(Readers beware: there are a lot of article title-buyers out there, vs fact-checkers.)


Dr. David Heber (in addition to many others), has a few compelling studies that point to numerous other compounds in black pepper for its antioxidant activity.


Yes, black pepper still has antioxidant power, it’s just likely not all concentrated in piperine.


Culinary Application


Let’s take this outside of the intestinal situation and to the kitchen with some food application!


In one article, Heber’s team of researchers showed that when curcumin (extracted from ground turmeric) was combined with piperine (from ground black pepper), and placed into hamburger meat, piperine did not show any antioxidant power to prevent lipid oxidation!!1

It was all in the curcuminoids.


On the other hand, when the ground McCormick’s spices were added, black pepper’s addition greatly increased the antioxidant activity.


Beyond Piperine


You guys!


This means there are likely several other goofy-named compounds in the whole-black-peppercorn with antioxidant benefits.



To name a few fighting for you in the ring: “aromatic and terpenic constituents such as b-caryophyllene, limonene, b-pinene, aphellandrene and a-humulene”.1 (Many of these are present in the aforementioned essential oil extract studies).


These compounds may even work synergistically within the spice to compound each other’s individual antioxidant effects and create the overall potency that is sought after in the “king of spice”.


Black Pepper vine, piper nigrum, India, green, berry, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, fruit

Bottom line: God made black peppercorn in a whole form, not piperine extract on a vine.




It looks like it’s best to keep grinding those fresh cracked kernels for a little antioxidant boost.


If cleared by a qualified health professional, Young Living’s essential oil extracted from black pepper may be a viable supplement option.


NOTE: “qualified health professional” probably means an MD or PharmD if you’re taking medication. See more on that below.


Best Burgers, Healthy Burgers, Recipe, Grilling Spices, Antioxidant, Charcoal, carcinogens, beef, grass fed beef

The next time you’re fixin’ to grill up some patties, mix some cracked black pepper and turmeric into the meat!


You can read all about how the power-combo helps decrease oxidation of the saturated fats in meat as well as decreases the formation of toxic oxidative chemicals like MDA: malondialdehyde, here.


Turmeric’s curcuminoids take-the-cake for anti-oxidant potency, not piperine!

So exactly how much black pepper and turmeric should I add to my burger patties??


The researchers created standard 94 gram burger patties.


1 patty = 94g = about 3.5oz of burger meat. (Ever been to Five Guys? That’s one Five Guy’s patty.)


For spices:

The study outcomes suggest using one of these three combinations:


Option 1: 1.5g Turmeric ( ½ tsp) & 0.36g black pepper (about 1/5 tsp)

Option 2: 3g Turmeric (1 tsp) & 2 ¼ tsp black pepper

Option 3: 6g Turmeric (2 tsp) & 0.36g black pepper (about 1/5 tsp)


Note: I emboldened the middle spice combo because it appears to have (by a slight margin) the greatest impact on suppressing MDA (toxic byproduct of lipid oxidation) and because it equates to reasonable measuring tools.1


If you are using 1 pound of Ground Beef

(453 grams), then this equates to:


Option 1:

2.5 tsp Turmeric & ¾ tsp Black Pepper

Option 2:

5 tsp Turmeric & 1.08g Black Pepper (½ tsp)

Option 3:

9 ½ tsp Turmeric & ¾ tsp Black Pepper


Using 2 pounds? Multiply the 1-pound quantities by two


Programming Note:

Grass Fed Grass-Finished Beef is ideal. For starters, there is less omega-6 fatty acids that, when out of proportion, can increase inflammation in the body (ie- in the SAD Standard American Diet). For my Texan friends, HEB carries “DAKOTA: 100% Grass Fed Beef” at 90% leanness.



Medication: potential interactions


A lot more research is needed, particularly with randomized clinical control trials in humans. We’re a pretty complex bunch, especially when we take into account the meds people take!


Research suggests that if you’re taking any of the following medications,18,3 talk to your MD or pharmacist about whether you need to avoid black pepper and piperine altogether, or just avoid supplement forms, and how much is “too much” to eat.


1. Carbamazepine & Midazolam: Black Pepper might increase how much is absorbed and how much is cleared out of the body, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects

2. Cyclophosphamide, barbiturates, bromobenzene, ifosfamide, and other similar meds.

3. Lovastatin (Mevacor), itraconazole (Sporanox), fexofenadine (Allegra), ketoconazole (Nizoral), triazolam (Halcion), and many others.

4. Diabetes Medications (recall – I mentioned piperine theoretically may decrease blood sugar levels in humans. This means talk to your MD, and continue to regularly monitor your blood sugar levels.) A few medications: glimepiride (Amaryl), glyburide (DiaBeta, Glynase PresTab, Micronase), rosiglitazone (Avandia), pioglitazone (Actos), insulin, and many others. The list of diabetes medications is a long one.

5. Etoposide, paclitaxel, corticosteroids, erythromycin, vinblastine, vincristine, digoxin, cisapride (Propulsid), itraconazole, amprenavir, indinavir, nelfinavir, saquinavir, cimetidine, ranitidine, diltiazem, vindesine, ketoconazole, verapamil, fexofenadine (Allegra), cyclosporine, loperamide (Imodium), quinidine, and many others.

6. Piperine, and potentially other compounds in black pepper, may theoretically slow blood clotting in humans. These meds also slow blood clotting: aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), heparin, ticlopidine (Ticlid), dalteparin (Fragmin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), warfarin (Coumadin), and others.


drugs, medication, medication food interactions, black pepper and drugs and meds

7. Nevirapine: (black pepper may increase nevirapine levels in the blood. More research needed.)

8. Pentobarbital (Nembutal): Black pepper and Piperine may increase the sleepiness effect here.

9. Phenytoin (Dilantin): Black Pepper might increase how much the body absorbs, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects.

10. Propranolol (Inderal): Black Pepper might increase how much the body absorbs, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects.

11. Rifampin: Black Pepper might increase how much the body absorbs, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects.

12. Theophylline: Black Pepper might increase how much the body absorbs, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects. More research needed to determine if effect >minor.

13. Amoxicillin (Amoxil, Trimox): more research needed to establish whether the concern is just minor. Black Pepper might increase how much the body absorbs, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects.

14. Chlorzoxazone: Black Pepper might increase how much the body absorbs, which can increase the drug’s effects and side effects. More research needed to determine if effect >minor.


There are a lot of new drugs being created and distributed. Additionally, there are a number of medications that haven’t been sufficiently tested for interactions with black pepper to know whether both together is safe.


In every case: be sure to check with your physician and/or pharmacist whether black pepper is safe to eat, and if so, whether an essential oil supplement is allowed (per supplement label’s instructions). There is not currently enough research to support the safety of black pepper or piperine supplementation during pregnancy or lactation/nursing.

Overall, the problem with many health-benefits claims of black pepper and piperine, is that many of these studies are in animals and cells with very little to zero human applications.

A lot more research is needed.