At the Herbal Academy of New England, one of our greatest joys is to witness the deepening relationship between the students in our online herbalism programs and the plants and herbs already in their homes—common spices like coriander, cinnamon, thyme, cumin, and clove. Simply by opening a kitchen cabinet, a student steps into the world of herbalism through their own familiar collection of herbs and spices bursting with vibrant and fragrant medicine.
Humans have been pinching, dashing, and tossing herbs and spices into pots and pans since ancient times. Many culinary herbs are high in volatile oils, which aid digestion and relax our nervous systems. Others are rich in antioxidants that offer protection from DNA damage, as well as enhance the activity of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes. Spices like turmeric, clove, rosemary, and ginger contain plant compounds that even in small amounts bring us health and vitality, while creating depth of flavor and preventing spoilage in our food.
A student need not venture even as far as the spice cabinet before encountering a potent herb that is often overlooked as people reach for more exotic healers. But this small, dried berry was once considered exotic, and so rare and expensive that it was kept under lock and key. In times past, it was used as currency, ransom, and sacred offerings.
Black pepper, the king of spices, has been part of Indian cooking and medicinal traditions for thousands of years, and now sits next to almost every saltshaker on countless tables across North America.
Black pepper is the fruit of Piper nigrum (Piperaceae), a vine native to South India and primarily cultivated on India’s Malabar coast, Sumatra, and in Vietnam. It is the most traded spice in the world. Piper nigrum, depending on how it is processed and prepared, produces white, red, orange, green, or black peppercorns, all of which are unique in taste and scent.
Ayurvedic practitioners use black pepper to improve digestion and to address gastrointestinal problems and colds. Black pepper is also used as a warming herb for kapha imbalances, as well as for headaches, urinary problems, and toothache. Masala chai, a delicious traditional Indian brew, features black peppercorns as well as other common kitchen herbs high in antioxidants like clove and cardamom.
Similarly, Western herbalists use black pepper for cold and flus, as a diaphoretic to stimulate sweating, carminative to help with digestion, anti-inflammatory, and as a diuretic. It is also used to enhance circulation, and is included in preventatives like fire cider, a traditional folk formula of apple cider vinegar infused with kitchen herbs and spices.
The taste of black pepper on the tongue triggers the stomach to release hydrochloric acid, which is needed to digest protein, and stimulates digestive enzymes in the pancreas. Black pepper has been found to significantly enhance the activity of the body’s natural killer cells, and has anti-tumor and anti-mutagenic properties.
Because not enough information is available to determine safety in pregnant and breastfeeding women, only culinary amounts of black pepper should be used by those who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Black pepper may inhibit drug metabolism so should be used with caution, if at all, by those taking pharmaceutical medications (talk with your doctor). It is not recommended to take pepper in very large amounts—fortunately culinary amounts (1/2 – 1 teaspoon) can be very effective!
There have been some concerns raised about a constituent called safrole, which is found in very small amounts in black pepper as well as other herbs like basil, star anise, nutmeg, and ginger. This constituent was given a bad rap after being isolated and injected in large amounts into rats, who then developed liver cancer. However, injecting large amounts of an isolated plant chemical into a non-human species tells us nothing about the effect on humans who eat small amounts of the whole plant. In contrast, the research data on humans and whole black pepper indicates the opposite: that black pepper is anti-carcinogenic. Regardless, safrole significantly decreases when peppercorns are cooked and dried according to traditional preparation methods.
Perhaps the most interesting use of black pepper in herbalism is that of catalyst. Catalysts are activator plants that herbalists add in small amounts to formulas to help “direct” the other herbs, enhance their effectiveness, or help the body assimilate them. Often catalysts are strong tasting plants like ginger, cayenne, rosemary, peppermint, and lavender. On the sweeter side, licorice root is a classic catalyst, the great harmonizer of complex herbal brews in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Black pepper’s catalytic action is seen in recent research showing that compounds in black pepper enhance the bioavailability of antioxidant compounds in turmeric by up to 2,000%. Other studies have shown that piperine, a component of black pepper, improves the bioavailability of other substances in food including beta carotene, selenium, pyroxidine, and amino acids.
If the microcosm is a reflection of the macro, we can see black pepper’s strong catalytic action in world history, in the sense that this spice catalyzed Europeans to explore and “discover” new continents and lands across the globe, and led to the development of lucrative major trading ports, including New England’s own Salem, Massachusetts. Black pepper also made the fortune of Elias Haskett Derby, America’s first millionaire.
Farmers who cultivate spices like black pepper face increasing challenges from fluctuating market prices, world demand, competition, and irregular weather patterns, all of which create hardship in earning a livable income. Unfortunately, black pepper’s trading price is now lower than it was over 20 years ago and does not meet the cost of production for struggling farmers.
We recommend seeking out black pepper and other spices that are associated with a fair trade cooperative that guarantees minimum premiums for growers. In addition, look for companies that adhere to environmental and cultural standards such as no forced labor, commitment to sustainability practices, and restricted chemical use.
To preserve black pepper’s volatile oils, use whole peppercorns and store away from light until you are ready to freshly grind them. Look for peppercorns that are uniform and rich in color, with a strong aroma.
The versatility of black pepper makes it a fine accompaniment for dishes both savory and sweet (strawberries or peaches with black pepper are surprisingly spectacular combinations) and can be added in small amounts to tea, chai, and sprinkled on sandwiches and popcorn. Or try it in Golden Milk, a delicious traditional Indian drink combing turmeric and black pepper.
Taste will vary depending on where the pepper was grown and how it was prepared. My personal favorite is Tellicherry black pepper, grown near Kerala on the Malabar coast of India. Tellicherry peppercorns have a slight sweetness and exotic fruitiness that balances out deeper warmth and pungency.
Marlene Adelmann, our director at the Herbal Academy of New England says that “learning about the medicinal properties of plants is like a gift within a gift, and like turning on a light you didn’t know existed.” We encourage students in our online Intermediate Herbalism Course to turn this light on through a meditative experiential exercise, in which we ask students to experience their kitchen spices as if they are tasting and smelling them for the very first time.
This exercise can present a challenge for students tasting black pepper, a spice so commonly used it is often no longer consciously tasted or experienced. But when approached mindfully and with a curious beginner’s mind, black pepper’s exotic perfume calls to mind distant lands and tropical vines, and its pungent and fruity warmth dazzles the taste buds like no other. Black pepper is truly a gift within a gift, offering us taste and health with every pinch.
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Annie Hall is the Assistant Director at the Herbal Academy of New England, the home of the the Online Introductory Herbal Course and the Online Intermediate Herbal Course, and meeting place for Boston area herbalists.
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