For thousands of years, black pepper has been a staple ingredient all over the world.
Often referred to as the “king of spices,” it comes from the dried, unripe fruit of the native Indian plant Piper nigrum. Both whole black peppercorns and ground black pepper are commonly used in cooking (1).
In addition to adding flavor to foods, black pepper may act as an antioxidant and offer a variety of health benefits.
This article takes a look at black pepper, including its benefits, side effects, and culinary uses.
A Powerful Antioxidant
Antioxidants are compounds that fight cellular damage caused by unstable molecules called free radicals.
Free radicals form as a result of poor diet, sun exposure, smoking, pollutants, and more ().
One test-tube study found that black pepper extracts were able to resist over 93% of the free radical damage that scientists stimulated in a fat preparation (6).
Another study in rats on a high-fat diet observed that treatment with black pepper and piperine decreased free radical levels to amounts similar to those in rats fed a normal diet (7).
Along with piperine, black pepper contains other anti-inflammatory compounds — including the essential oils limonene and beta-caryophyllene — that may protect against inflammation, cellular damage, and disease (, ).
While the antioxidant effects of black pepper are promising, research is currently limited to test-tube and animal studies.
Boosts Nutrient Absorption
Black pepper can enhance the absorption and function of certain nutrients and beneficial compounds.
In particular, it may improve the absorption of curcumin — the active ingredient in the popular anti-inflammatory spice turmeric (, ).
One study found that taking 20 mg of piperine with 2 grams of curcumin improved the availability of curcumin in human blood by 2,000% ().
Beta-carotene functions as a powerful antioxidant that may combat cellular damage, thus preventing conditions like heart disease (, ).
A 14-day study in healthy adults found that taking 15 mg of beta-carotene with 5 mg of piperine substantially increased blood levels of beta-carotene compared to taking beta-carotene alone (15).
May Promote Digestion and Prevent Diarrhea
Black pepper may promote proper stomach function.
In fact, studies in animal intestinal cells found that piperine in doses of 4.5 mg per pound (10 mg per kg) of body weight was comparable to the common antidiarrheal medication loperamide in preventing spontaneous intestinal contractions (20, 22).
Due to its positive effects on stomach function, black pepper may be useful for those with poor digestion and diarrhea. However, more research in humans is needed.
Summary Black pepper and its active compound piperine may have powerful antioxidant activity, enhance the absorption of certain nutrients and beneficial compounds, and improve digestive health. Still, more research is needed.
Black pepper is considered safe for human consumption in the typical amounts used in food and cooking (2).
Supplements containing 5–20 mg of piperine per dose also appear to be safe, but research in this area is limited (, 15).
However, eating large amounts of black pepper or taking high-dose supplements may lead to adverse side effects, such as burning sensations in the throat or stomach ().
While this may be helpful for medications that are poorly absorbed, it can also lead to dangerously high absorption of others.
If you’re interested in increasing your black pepper intake or taking piperine supplements, be sure to check with your healthcare provider about possible drug interactions.
Summary Typical amounts of black pepper used in cooking and supplements with up to 20 mg of piperine appear to be safe. Still, black pepper may enhance the absorption of drugs and should be used with caution in combination with certain medications.
You can add black pepper to your diet in several ways.
Ground black pepper or whole black peppercorns in a jar with a grinder are common in grocery stores, markets, and online.
Use black pepper as an ingredient in recipes to add flavor and spice to meats, fish, vegetables, salad dressings, soups, stir-fries, pasta, and more.
You can also add a dash of black pepper to scrambled eggs, avocado toast, fruit, and dipping sauces for a spicy kick.
To prepare a marinade using the spice, combine 1/4 cup (60 ml) of olive oil with 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a bit of your other favorite seasonings. Brush this marinade over fish, meat, or vegetables before cooking for a flavorful dish.
When stored in a cool, dry place, the shelf life of black pepper is up to two to three years.
Summary Black pepper is a versatile ingredient that can be added to a variety of recipes, including meats, fish, eggs, salads, and soups. It’s available at most grocery stores.
Black pepper is one of the most popular spices in the world and may offer impressive health benefits.
Piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper, may fight free radicals and improve digestion and the absorption of beneficial compounds.
Black pepper is generally considered safe in cooking and as a supplement but may significantly increase the absorption of some drugs and should be used with caution in these cases.
However, for most people, spicing up your diet with black pepper is an easy way to add flavor to your meals and reap some health benefits.