5 Surprising Things You Never Knew About Those Peppercorns On Your Table

It's more than just a simple spice.

October 26, 2017
black peppercorns
Ng Jing Wen / EyeEm/getty

Supplying the world with black pepper—especially organic—is surprisingly involved, considering how pervasive the spice is. The tiny berries are picked by hand at thousands of small farms then dried in the sun before traveling halfway round the world to U.S. tables.

Nonetheless, there are few spices as common—black pepper is on just about every counter and in every cupboard. And after learning a few things about these tiny taste bombs, you may never take another grind for granted.

Below, five surprising things you never knew about the black pepper on your table.

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

peppercorns on vine
Peppercorns grow on a vine

The berries of the piper nigrum plant, peppercorns grow in tiny clusters called spikes, each one about the size of a finger. Each must be hand-harvested to avoid damaging the plant, which can be productive for seven years or so. Piper nigrum is a flowering vine native to southern India, but is now cultivated in many places including Brazil and Vietnam (currently the largest producer of black pepper in the world).

This climbing vine will wrap itself around almost anything, so on the tiny farms that provide most of the world’s organic pepper, growers like to intercrop, to maximize land usage. Thus one might find piper nigrum scaling a jackfruit tree, growing alongside a patch of ginger or some turmeric. This diversity is good for the environment and also for the farmer—as markets fluctuate, if the price of peppercorns is dropping, perhaps the price of turmeric is going up.

Related: Pink Himalayan Salt Vs. Normal Table Salt—Which Is Healthier?

ground black pepper
Michelle Arnold / EyeEm/getty
Pepper packs a big nutritional punch for a small package

Just five grinds of a pepper mill daily—an average amount of peppercorns used for spicing a Caesar salad—contains enough alkaloids to produce cancer cell destroying effects along with a nice dose of potassium, says Daniella Chace, MS, CN, a clinical nutritionist, author, and host of Nutrition Matters on NPR.

For maximum anti-inflammatory impact, combine black pepper with turmeric, Chace advises. “Turmeric, the yellow spice used in curries, is rich in the phytochemical curcumin, which becomes more bioavailable when ingested along with piperine in black pepper,” she says, adding that research shows that black pepper increases the anti-inflammatory effects of turmeric by up to 2,000 percent.

Related: 13 Foods That Have More Potassium Than A Banana

(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox. And follow along on Facebook and Instagram.)

green peppercorns
Red, white, black and green are all the same plant

A fresh peppercorn, plucked right from its vine, is green. It tastes a bit fruity, followed by a sting of heat. Green peppercorns are under-ripe berries, most often found in stores preserved in jars. Common black peppercorns are green berries that have been dried. White peppercorns are black ones whose skins have been removed. They have both a fiery, but also less pungent taste, and are good for light-colored sauces and foods. Finally, red peppercorns are berries that are allowed to fully ripen on the vine.

While most peppercorns are picked as soon as the immature green berries appear on the vine, Tellicherry grade berries (named after a port town in the state of Kerala on India’s Malabar Coast) are left to ripen the longest. This allows the pepper’s flavor to fully develop, becoming deeper and more complex, even a little fruity—not just sharp, hot, and bright like peppercorns made from younger berries.

Related: 7 Spices That Could Help You Live Longer

These different treatments cause the heat of the spice to hit different areas of your mouth, says Matt O’Neil, chef/owner of Ledger Restaurant & Bar in Salem, Mass., which was, in colonial days, the epicenter of the pepper trade. Black pepper is tasted in your front palate, while white pepper hits the roof of your mouth and red pepper hits your throat. “If you use multiple peppers, you can get rolling heat rather than one dash of spice,” he explains.

No matter which you choose, stick with whole berries, advises nutritionist Chase. Pre-ground pepper is quickly oxidized by light and oxygen, taking away much of its nutritional value, she says. “There is still some viable potassium in old pepper powder but the medicinal properties are lost,” she adds. “So fresh peppercorns and grinding just before ingesting is very important.”

black pepper farm
Organic supports small family farms

While conventional black pepper producers cover vast fields with Piper Nigrum vines growing on sticks, organic methods are well-suited to small farms, notes Kai Stark, purchasing manager for Frontier Co-op, manufacturer of Frontier Co-op and Simply Organic brands of herbs and spices.

Because organic farming relies heavily on the health of the soil, says Stark, who has been working with pepper farmers for more than 15 years, the biodiversity of small farms is important. Frontier, for example, works with more than 2,300 organic black pepper farmers in many remote areas, each typically yielding between 300 and 500 pounds annually.

Co-ops like Frontier partner with local organizations and suppliers to educate farmers about better methods, often supporting the transition to organic and ultimately leading to higher yields and a better standard of living, he says. “Buying organic means chemicals stay out of farmers’ lives as well as consumers’. It may also mean a premium price and better living conditions for farmers around the globe.”

Related: Here’s Why I Transitioned To Organic And How It Saved My Family’s Dairy Farm

black pepper on strawberries
James And James/getty
Black pepper isn't just for savory dishes

“Black pepper is a hidden gem of the pastry cupboard,” says Bill Yosses, former White House pastry chef under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “It is often used to add a spicy element without totally taking over the dish. Unlike chili peppers, it has a deep background heat and a floral quality that is amazing.”

Yosses, whose new book, The Sweet Spot: Dialing Back Sugar and Amping Up Flavor, came out Oct 24th, says it can add subtle spice to everything from a Concord grape sorbet to fresh strawberries with balsamic vinegar. But his favorite? “I like it with dark red plums either in a compote or a tart.”