Black Pepper (Piper nigrum L.)

— This article by Jerry Cates was first published on 23 October 2015, and revised last on 2 April 2016. © Budsinthenews Vol. 6:10(3).


Black Pepper (Piper nigrum L.). Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen

Black Pepper (Piper nigrum L.). Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen

Black pepper (Piper nigrum), a flowering vine in the Piperaceae family, is widely cultivated for its fruit. The fruit, whether intact or in the form of a denuded seed is, once dried, usually minced or ground into a coarse to fine powder, then used as a spice and seasoning named for the way it has been processed.

When fresh and fully mature, the black pepper fruit measures about 5 millimeters (0.20 inch) in diameter, and is dark red in color. Being a drupe, the fruit contains but one seed. Peppercorns, and the ground pepper derived from them, are often known simply as (undifferentiated) pepper. The unripe fruit, when cooked and dried, is typically known as black pepper. If the unripe fruit is simply dried, the peppercorns and the spice derived from them is known as green pepper. Last, when the fruit is allowed to ripen fully, then to dry and flake away from the fruit seeds, it is known as white pepper.

Black pepper, which is native to south India, is now extensively cultivated in a variety of tropical regions. In 2013, 118,000 metric tons of black pepper (34% of worldwide black pepper production) was produced in Vietnam, and that number is rising.

Black pepper, recognized as the world’s most traded spice, is among the most common spices used in cuisines worldwide. Its pungency is derived from the alkaloid, Piperine, along with its isomer chavicine. It was first isolated from the fruits of Piper nigrum in 1819 by Hans Christian Ørsted. Later, Flückiger and Hanbury found piperine in Piper longum and Piper officinarum, two species in the genus Piper known as “long pepper”.

Piperine is concentrated in both from the outer fruit and the seed. Black peppercorns contain between 4.6% and 9.7% piperine by mass, and white pepper, derived from the seed, contains somewhat more. Compared with capsaicin from chili peppers, refined piperine is, by weight, onlty about 1% as hot.

Besides piperine, the outer fruit layer of the dried peppercorn contains a number of terpenes, including pinene, sabinene, limonene, caryophyllene, and linalool. These impart citrusy, woody, and floral notes that are not present in appreciable amounts in white pepper. Due to its more lengthy fermentation, white pepper acquires its own distinct notes, including a tantalizing mustiness.

From a technical standpoint, in order to spice up our lives, piperine activates the heat- and acidity-sensing TRPV ion channel TRPV1 and TRPA1 pain-sensing nerve cells, also known as nociceptors. But this functionality is not the only magic that piperine works in mammalian biology. It is also known for its bioavailability-enhancing abilities, though the full mechanism involved is unknown. What is known is that piperine inhibits human CYP3A4 and P-glycoprotein, enzymes important for the metabolism and transport of xenobiotics and metabolites, and that, in some animals, piperine inhibits other CYP 450 enzymes important for drug metabolism. It is this functionality that has intrigued scientists most in the past decade.

In general, a ‘bioavailability enhancer’ is a drug facilitator. Though the enhancer itself doe not show typical drug activity, when used in combination with certain drugs it functions to exaggerate the activity of drug molecule. This enhancement includes increasing the bioavailability of the drug across a membrane, potentiating the drug molecule by inhibiting deactivating enzymes, functioning as a receptor for the drug molecule, and making a target cell more receptive to the drug.

Though the mechanism involved is not known, piperine is known to increase serum levels of some nutriments, and lengthen the serum half lives of others, including coenzyme Q10 and beta-carotene. In combination with such supplements as turmeric and resveratrol, for example, it has been shown to increase both the absorption of each supplement, and inhibit the metabolism of the supplement molecule, enabling it to produce longer lasting results.



  • Domain: Eukaryota (yew-carr-ee-OH-tah)  — from the Greek prefix ευ (yew) = good, well, pleasing + καρυον (khar-yone) = a nut/nucleus, thus organisms whose cells contain a nucleus and other organelles within membranes.
  • (unranked): Bikonta Cavalier-Smith, 1993 (bye-KOHN-tuh) — from the Latin bis = twice/double + the Greek κοντος = a punting pole; those eukaryotic organisms within the subgroups Apusozoa, Rhizaria, Excavata, Archaeplastida, or Chromalveolata.
  • (unranked): Archaeplastida Adl et al., 2005 (ahr-kee-PLASS-tih-duh) — from the Greek αρχαιος (AHR-kee-ose) = ancient/antiquated + πλασις (PLAS-iss) = a moulding + Anglo Saxon tid = time; a major group of eukaryotes, comprised of the red algae (Rhodophyta), the green algae, and the land plants along with the freshwater unicellular algae known as glaucophytes.
  • Kingdom/Regnum: Plantae Copeland, 1956 (PLAN-tee) or Viridiplantae Cavalier-Smith, 1881 (veer-id-eye-PLAN-tee) — from the Latin planta = a green twig; the plant kingdom, consisting of multi-cellular green plants, i.e., whose cells have cellulose within their cell walls and have primary chloroplasts derived from endosymbiosis with cyanobacteria containing chlorophylls a and b and lack phycobilins..
  • (unranked): Streptophyta Jeffrey 1967 (strepp-toh-PHY-tuh) — from στρεπτος (STREP-tose) = (easily) twisted, pliant + φυτον (PHU-tawn) = a plant/tree; the land plants and the green algal group Charophyta.
  • Subkingdom: Embryophyta Engler, 1892 (imm-bree-oh-FYE-tuh) — from the Greek εμβρυον (EMM-bree-yon) + φυτον (PHU-tawn) = a plant/tree; green plants, informally known as land plants because most are terrestrial rather than aquatic, while the related green algae are primarily aquatic;
  • (unranked): Angiosperms (AN-gee-oh-spurms)/Magnoliophyta Cronquist (mag-NOH-lee-oh-fye-tuh) — from the Greek αγγειον (AUGG-ee-awn) = a vessel/pail/reservoir + σπερμα (SPUR-mah) = a seed; the flowering plants, distinguished from the gymnosperms by having flowers, endosperm within the seeds, and the production of fruits that contain the seeds;
  • (unranked) Magnoliids (mag-NOH-lee-idz) — a group of about 9,000 species of flowering plants characterized by trimerous flowers, pollen with one pore, and usually branching-veined leaves; the plants in the Magnoliid group are neither monocots nor eudicots;
  • Order: Piperales Bercht. & J Presl (pie-purr-AWL-eez) — an order of flowering plants comprising five families: 1. Aristolochiaceae, the Birthwort family of mostly perennial, herbaceous plants, shrubs, woody vines and lianas; 2. Hydnoraceae, a family of parasitic flowering plants comprising two genera, Hydnora and Prosopanche, both having a complete absence of leaves; 3. Lactoridaceae, a family comprising a single genus and species, Lactoris fernandeziana, a flowering shrub native to the cloud forest of Masatierra, Robinson Caruso Island, of the San Juan Fernandez archipelago; 4. Piperaceae, the pepper family of 3,600 species in 13 genera; and 5. Saururaceae, sometimes known as the lizard’s tail family;
  • Family: Piperaceae Giseke (pie-purr-ACE-uh-ee) — the pepper family; comprised of 3,600 recognize species in 13 genera, though most peppers are found within two genera: 1. Piper (2,000 species) — a genus of shrubs, herbs, and lianas distributed pan tropically, most commonly in the understory of lowland tropical rainforests, and 2. Peperomia (1,600 species) — most compact perennial epiphytes that thrive on rotten wood;
  • Genus: Piper L. (PIE-purr) — the pepper plants or pepper vines, comprising some 2,000 species, most being dominant species in their native habitats;
  • Species: P. nigrum L. (NYE-grumm) — a flowering vine cultivated for its fruit, which cultivators normally dry and use as a spice and seasoning;




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