Pepper: King Of Spices

Seasoning with pepper used to be a privilege of the upper class, but today the spice can be found on almost every dining table. Pepper is also considered a traditional medicinal plant in many countries and is used for all kinds of ailments.

Pepper – the fruit of the pepper bush

Pepper, together with salt, is an integral part of every spice cupboard. The aromatic grains are the fruits of the pepper bush from the pepper family. The pepper bush is a climbing plant that grows up to 10 meters high. The pepper bush (Piper nigrum) should not be confused with the pepper tree (Schinus), which belongs to another plant family – the sumac family. These include, for example, the Peruvian and Brazilian pepper trees, which supply the pink pepper for colorful pepper mixtures. The Peruvian pepper tree in particular is a beautiful tree with drooping branches resembling a weeping willow.

Where the pepper grows

As is well known, if you send someone “to where the pepper grows”, you wish the person to be somewhere far away and would prefer not to see them again. This faraway place was originally India, from where the spicy granules spread to other countries as well. The largest growing countries today include Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and Malaysia.

This is how pepper came to Europe

For centuries, the sharp granules were transported overland to Europe via the Middle East. For this reason, initially, only the well-heeled upper class could enjoy the spice. This gave rise to the term “pepper sack” for rich citizens who could afford the expensive spice.

Even after the sea route to India was opened, the prices for the coveted spice did not fall. It was only when Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia started growing pepper and the areas under cultivation became larger and larger that pepper prices fell.

The pepper varieties

Pepper comes in four varieties: black, green, red, and white. The varieties all belong to the Piper nigrum, the so-called “real pepper”. So these are not different plants, just different stages of maturity or different processing methods. The taste is correspondingly different.

Green pepper tastes mildest, white pepper the hottest. The fruits are green when unripe and red when ripe. The peppercorns only become black or white through further processing steps.

  • Green pepper: For the green variant, the unripe, green fruits are harvested. The grains are then either freeze-dried or pickled in brine – depending on whether they are sold dried or pickled in a jar. The whole green peppercorns are z. B. used in the pepper sauce.
  • Black pepper: Black pepper is also harvested unripe when the fruits are still green. The grains get their color and wrinkled skin from several days of drying or fermentation. The black variant tastes much hotter and tart than the green one. It is used whole or ground and can enhance almost any dish.
  • Red Pepper: For the red grains, the fruits are harvested when ripe. Due to the long ripening time, the red variety tastes much more aromatic and fruity than green and black pepper and also has a sweet note. In addition, this pepper variant is more expensive because of the longer ripening time. It is dried, usually used whole and refined e.g. B. Desserts. Red pepper should not be confused with pink pepper, which is sometimes added to pepper mixtures.
  • White pepper: The ripe red fruits are also harvested for this variant. From there, the pulp is then dissolved by soaking in water for several days, so that only the white seeds remain inside. These are then dried. The white variety tastes sharper than black, green, and red pepper but is less fruity. It is popular in Thai and Chinese cuisine. White pepper should only be added at the end of the cooking time, otherwise, it can develop unpleasant aromas.

In addition, there are many other representatives of real pepper that are grown in different areas of the world according to specific guidelines and whose origin is considered a seal of quality. For example, the Kampot pepper from the province of Kampot in Cambodia or the Tellicherry pepper from the Indian province of Thalassery.

Similar spices

Many other spices have pepper in their names:

Long pepper

Piper longum, also known as long pepper or pole pepper, is the original form of real pepper – both belong to the same family but not the same plant species. Today, however, Lange P. has largely fallen into oblivion. It got its name because its infructescence grows like a cone. For use in the kitchen, these “cones” are crushed in a mortar or cooked whole and removed before serving. Long P. tastes very aromatic and sweet.

Pink pepper

These pink berries are often found in pepper mixes for visual reasons and could easily be confused with red pepper. However, they come from the Brazilian and Peruvian pepper trees, which do not belong to the pepper family but to the sumac family (Anacardiaceae). The pink granules taste mild, sweet, and fruity.

Tasmanian mountain pepper

The Tasmanian mountain pepper (Tasmannia lanceolata) from the island of Tasmania (south of Australia) resembles the real pepper in terms of taste but belongs to the Winteraceae family. Tasmanian mountain pepper tastes sweet and is considered particularly noble because its harvest is limited.

Sichuan pepper

Szechuan pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum), also known as lemon pepper or Chinese pepper, comes from the Chinese province of Szechuan and belongs to the rue family – so it has nothing to do with the real P. either. Szechuan pepper tastes lemony and is slightly milder than black P. It is part of the Asian five-spice powder together with star anise, fennel, cinnamon, and clove.

Cayenne pepper

Cayenne pepper is not a type of pepper, but a powder made from dried chilies of the “Cayenne” variety. The powder tastes fiery hot and is characterized by a light smoke aroma. Cayenne pepper originated in South America.

Cubeb pepper

Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba), also called Indian pepper, belongs to the pepper family like the real P. (Piper nigrum). With its slightly hot, fresh, menthol-like taste, it is an integral part of the Maghreb’s Ras-el-Hanout spice blend. In the kitchens of Europe, on the other hand, it is rather unknown. In 2016, the cubeb pepper was named medicinal plant of the year because of its anti-inflammatory, expectorant, and concentration-enhancing effects. These effects are said to be noticeable even when chewing three grains a day.

Season with pepper and cook

Along with salt, pepper is the ultimate universal spice – the grains are used all over the world and are typically used in savory dishes and wherever food needs a bit of spiciness. But it can also be used to refine desserts. The red variety is best suited for this thanks to its sweet note.

Only add after cooking

Ground pepper is ideal for seasoning just before the end of the cooking time or directly at the table. It is best to buy whole peppercorns and grind them fresh because the essential oils develop their full aroma during grinding. If, on the other hand, you buy the ground version, most of the essential oils have already evaporated.

Whole peppercorns are ideal for dishes that need to cook longer. The aromas are largely preserved in it so that the grains still give off flavor even after a long cooking time. Peppercorns that have been roasted in a pan over low heat are particularly rich in flavor. On the other hand, they should not be fried at high temperatures, as they quickly become bitter. Therefore, only add the granules after frying.

This is how it is ground

Of course, the easiest way is to grind the hot grains in a pepper mill. If you don’t have a pepper mill, you can use a mortar or good old rolling pin. If you want to grind the sharp granules very finely, you can achieve the best results in a high-performance blender.

This is how you can neutralize pepper

If you accidentally put too much pepper in a dish, you can neutralize the taste with a little cream, yogurt, or water. Potatoes also neutralize the typical peppery taste, but of course, they don’t go well with every dish.

The durability

Spices should generally be kept dry, airtight, and protected from light. It is best to store pepper in a closable glass jar that you keep within reach in a kitchen drawer or spice cabinet. Whole peppercorns can be kept for several years. You can freeze fresh green pepper in a freezer bag – it will keep for about a year.

Ground peppers are more sensitive because the essential oils are no longer surrounded by the protective shell. Therefore, over time, the powder and aroma a. Ground spices are also more susceptible to moisture, as they come into contact with moist air more quickly during seasoning, e.g. B. rises from the pots or from the hot plate.

Pickled peppercorns will keep for about a year if unopened. Most of the time, they’re noted to use them up within a week once they’ve been opened. If the peppercorns are covered with enough liquid, they should keep a little longer (of course in the fridge). Before you use them again, check if they still smell good and look appetizing.

A traditional medicinal plant

Hardly anyone in Europe knows that pepper has many health properties. In Asia, on the other hand, spice is one of the traditional medicinal plants. In India and China, in particular, numerous medicinal uses of black P. are known. For example, the grains are ground and processed into tablets or pastes in combination with other plants or drunk as tea.

Most commonly, menstrual problems such as too heavy, too weak, too infrequent, or no menstrual bleeding are treated with pepper. In addition, the spice is used for coughs, sore throats, sinus infections, fever, earaches, and even snake bites. Peppered tea is also drunk for arthritis, dizziness, fever, migraines, and indigestion.

In the meantime, many of the effects of the sharp grains have also been confirmed by scientific studies. This is how the spice works, among other things:

  • antimicrobial
  • antioxidant
  • antidiabetic
  • appetizing
  • anti-inflammatory
  • anticancer
  • antispasmodic
  • neuroprotective (protects nerve cells)
  • analgesic
  • digestive

For digestive problems

Pepper stimulates the production of salivary and gastric juices and thus supports digestion. The aromatic grains can also help with digestive problems such as flatulence, stomach pain, and diarrhea.

In sensitive people, the pungent substances can in turn irritate the mucous membranes in the stomach and intestines. So if you generally have a sensitive stomach lining, you should not use peppercorns for indigestion.

Application: Grind a teaspoon of black peppercorns in a mortar, place it in a cup, and pour 150 ml of hot water over it. Alternatively, you can also add 4 to 5 fresh peppermint leaves. This way the tea tastes better and you also benefit from the pain-relieving effect of peppermint.

For colds

Since black granules have an antibacterial and warming effect, they are ideal as home remedies for colds.

Application: Grind a teaspoon of black peppercorns in a mortar, place in a cup with a few slices of fresh ginger and fresh turmeric root, and pour in 150 ml of hot water. Let the tea cool down and enjoy. You can drink cold tea several times a day.

For a sore throat

Due to its anti-inflammatory effect, pepper is an ideal and easy-to-use remedy for sore throats.

Application: Chew three black peppercorns in your mouth to release the active ingredients. Then swallow it and repeat it several times a day if necessary.

The ingredients: Piperine and Co

One of the most important ingredients in black P. is piperine, a substance from the group of alkaloids. Piperine is responsible for the pungent taste and most of the health benefits associated with pepper.

For example, as an antioxidant, piperine protects against damage caused by oxidative stress by inhibiting the formation of free radicals. In addition, piperine showed strong anti-inflammatory properties. In mouse studies, the substance reduced various inflammatory markers such as tumor necrosis factor, prostaglandin-2, and interleukin-10. These values ​​are increased in many chronic inflammatory diseases, e.g. B. in rheumatic diseases, chronic inflammatory bowel diseases, and psoriasis.

Black and white peppercorns contain the most piperine – up to 7.4%. In green P., piperine levels of up to 5.6% were measured, and in red P. levels of up to 4.3%. In addition, the spice contains many other substances, e.g. B. pipetting, piperazine, flavonoids (quercetin, kaempferol, rhamnetin), phenols, amines, and between 1 and 3% essential oil.

This pepper is the healthiest

The health effects of the black variety have been by far the most studied due to its prevalence and high piperine content. It is therefore generally considered to be the currently healthiest variety of pepper. Green, red and white variants, on the other hand, have been researched far less, so it is still difficult to assess their health potential.

Researchers suspect that black P. could be used in the future for inflammatory diseases such as various types of cancer, intestinal diseases, and skin diseases. However, human studies are still rare. However, black pepper is already used in dietary supplements today, as piperine is known to increase the bioavailability of other substances. This means that it ensures that other substances are better absorbed by the body.

Piperine increases bioavailability

Among other things, piperine increases the bioavailability of curcumin, quercetin, beta-carotene, selenium, and resveratrol as well as vitamins A, B6, and C. Piperine increases the absorption of these substances, for example by promoting blood flow in the digestive tract and increasing the permeability of the intestinal mucosa.

Piperine and curcumin

A study published in the journal Planta Medica showed that taking piperine and curcumin together increased curcumin bioavailability by 2000%. The subjects had ingested 20 mg piperine and 2 g curcumin. This increased the concentration of curcumin in the blood serum from 0.006 (without piperine) to 0.18 µg per ml (with piperine). This effect occurred within three-quarters of an hour after ingestion – but after an hour the concentration of curcumin decreased again.

For this reason, pepper extract is often added to curcumin supplements. Black pepper is also an important component of the golden milk used in Ayurvedic medicine. The golden milk contains u. Turmeric and ginger and are said to have an extremely positive effect on health.

Possible side effects of piperine

Piperine is an alkaloid and like many alkaloids (and like most substances by the way) it is toxic in large quantities. The lethal dose, when taken orally, is 330 mg per kg body weight in mice and 514 mg per kg body weight in rats. Doses of up to 100 mg per kg of body weight are considered harmless. If, on the other hand, you take a dietary supplement that also contains piperine to increase bioavailability, then that is 10 to 30 mg (not per kg of body weight, but in total) and thus a fraction of the maximum amount considered harmless.

Piperine and Leaky Gut Syndrome

If you know about Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS), then perhaps alarm bells went off when you read in the penultimate section that piperine can increase the permeability of the intestinal mucosa. Because the LGS describes an overly permeable intestinal mucosa – and an overly permeable intestinal mucosa can promote the development of a wide variety of diseases, especially allergies and autoimmune diseases. However, if a substance like piperine makes the intestinal mucosa a little more permeable for a short time, then this cannot be equated with permanently and pathologically permeable intestinal mucosa.

There are even initial animal studies showing that piperine does not damage the gut lining but, on the contrary, can help with inflammatory bowel disease and even colon cancer. Piperine could z. B. to reduce the symptoms of ulcerative colitis (diarrhea, bloody stool), lower inflammatory markers, and had an anti-cancer effect on colon cancer cell lines while not harming healthy cells. All of these observations would not be possible if piperine resulted in a damaged and diseased intestinal lining.

Pepper for histamine intolerance

Piperine can make the intestine more permeable to histamine so that the body can absorb it better. This should be avoided in the case of histamine intolerance, which is why pepper is generally discouraged in the case of histamine intolerance. You could try out whether you tolerate small amounts of it and also whether you might like the green, red or white variant better than the black one – this would be quite possible due to the varying piperine content.

Pepper allergy

A pepper allergy is relatively rare. Mugwort pollen allergy sufferers occasionally suffer from a cross-allergy to the pungent granules. The pepper allergy has the same symptoms as other food allergies, e.g. B. Stomach pain, rash, itching, a runny nose, etc.

Babies and children

Since the taste buds of babies and children are more sensitive than those of adolescents and adults, it is often recommended that strong spices such as pepper and chili should only be used from the age of two. After all, the little ones are just getting to know what food tastes like. Introduce your children to spices step by step later.

Buy pepper – you should pay attention to this

Black and white pepper can be bought whole or ground. Red and green varieties, on the other hand, are rarely found ground. Green variants are also offered pickled in brine or fresh on the stalks. You can find fresh green pepper in some Asian shops – all other spices are available in supermarkets or spice shops.

Quality features

Peppercorns should be rich in color and not faded in appearance. When ground, they should give off an intense peppery scent, but by no means musty or even smell like cowsheds, as is the case with inferior white pepper.

Anyone who has decided on a product and wants to know whether it was the right choice can do two tests at home: Put a few peppercorns in water. If the grains float to the top, they are completely dried out and contain almost no essential oils. Or rub a few grains across a piece of paper.

It is more difficult to assess the quality of the ground granules, as it smells less aromatic one way or the other. In addition, it is not possible to determine whether it may contain coloring agents or fillers.

Buy in organic quality

The fumigation of spices with ethylene oxide and agents containing bromide to preserve them is now banned in the EU for health reasons and to protect the environment. Instead, spices are irradiated with radioactivity. According to the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety, the irradiation of spices does not pose any health risks. However, this has also been claimed for some food additives that have subsequently been shown to be harmful (e.g. titanium dioxide). So if you want to avoid irradiated pepper for the time being and to be on the safe side, you can rely on organic spices – these must not be irradiated.

Despite the EU ban, spices from overseas (mainly from India) are still treated with ethylene oxide and thus reach European supermarkets. Spices treated with ethylene oxide (including pepper) have repeatedly been found in recent years. This included organic produce, as these can become contaminated if stored alongside fumigated spices. Due to this problem, controls on foreign spices have been tightened.

According to the Federal Institute for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, in 2017 7.5% of conventional pepper samples exceeded the maximum residue levels for pesticides. Among the organic samples, three out of nine contained residues, but none were above the maximum level. In 2019, neither conventional nor organic pepper exceeded the maximum residue levels. With no organic sample exceeding the allowable level of pesticides in recent years, consider purchasing organic-grade pungent granules or powder.

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