Even though it’s as common as ketchup and mustard, black pepper is one of the most underappreciated superfoods.
With a high ORAC value of 34,053, it’s loaded with antioxidants. Though its best benefit is boosting the bioavailability of CoQ10, curcumin supplements, and many other nutrients. That’s due to an alkaloid it contains called piperine, which aides in their absorption.
There’s no piperine in alligator pepper, because it’s not a pepper. This is something totally different than black pepper (the Piper genus) and chili peppers (Capsicum).
What are grains of paradise?
Grains of paradise are a single spice, in the same family as ginger and turmeric. It comes from West and North Africa. It can grow in tropical and subtropical climates, favoring moist soil.
The plant produces beautiful flowers that look like lilies. Pods, which are about the size of a chicken egg, grow near its base. When these pods turn from green to red, they’re ripe. Each will contain 100 or more reddish-brown seeds, which are similar in shape to cardamom; elongated and up to 1/10th of an inch (3mm).
The grains of paradise seeds are ground into powder for seasoning food and medicinal uses. In West Africa, stomach aches, indigestion, diarrhea, snake bites, and arthritis are a few of the ailments their folklore medicine believes it can help. As a spice, they use it to flavor soups, stews, chicken, lamb and other meats. It’s often served with kola nuts and peanut butter as part of the customary rites for marriages, funerals, town meetings, etc.In North America and Europe it’s also called alligator pepper. However in Africa, that name is also used for the closely-related Aframomum, A. citratum and A. exscapum. Those are sold as whole pods. With grains of paradise, it’s almost always sold as seeds, after they have been removed from their red pods.
Other names for the spice include ossame and Guinea pepper. The latter is after the country of Guinea, which is one of the West African nations historically known for growing it. Nearby Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia are also large exporters.
In Ghana they call it megbe-dogboe, which means “never lacking for the sick.”
Its scientific name is Aframomum melegueta and it’s sometimes called the melegueta pepper. That was the most common name for it in Europe during the 16th through 18th century, to differentiate this relatively affordable “pepper” from the real chili peppers that Columbus brought back from the New World.
You can read more about its history and traditional uses in the Handbook of African Medicinal Plants.
What does it taste like?
Grains of paradise tastes like black pepper, but with a less peppery zing and a more complex flavor profile; woodsy, herby, with notes of citrus. Some compare it to a milder and sweeter version of black pepper, cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon all wrapped up into one. The taste lingers, leaving a full-bodied heat but not one that burns.
Alligator pepper smells like a walk through a forest. Woodsy, while having many of the same undertones you experience while eating it – like lemon and cardamom.
In 16th century Europe, it was the readily available poor man’s substitute for black pepper, a prized spice that was hard to come by.
Today it’s the opposite.
Now it’s more expensive and considerably more difficult to obtain.
Where to buy grains of paradise is not your run-of-the-mill supermarket. Even in major cities like Los Angeles, London, and Toronto, the Walmarts, Sainsbury’s, and Longo’s may not carry it. You can find it at a spice store like Penzeys, Whole Foods, and of course it’s available on Amazon.
What can I use in place of grains of paradise? For every 1 tsp needed, substitute ½ tsp black pepper, ½ tsp of cardamom, and a sprinkle of ginger. This will suffice as a flavor replacement for freshly ground grains of paradise in recipes, but without the potential health perks it might offer.
The following have not all been proven, but scientific findings have suggested their possibility. Much more research is needed on each and therefore, this plant should not be used for the treatment, prevention, or cure of any disease. Preliminary research suggests grains of paradise benefits may include:
In a blinded, randomized, and placebo controlled trial, 19 non-obese women were given a daily dosage of alligator pepper, which led to a reduction in body fat “mainly by preventing visceral fat accumulation.” (1)
When 19 healthy young men were tested, there was an increase in whole-body energy expenditure. In other words, it boosted metabolism and spurred the burning of more calories. The women also experienced this. (2)
Slimmer neck and defined jaw
In the male participants, this spice seemed to spur burning of brown adipose fat reserves versus other sources. In adults, this fat mostly accumulates around the lower neck and above the collarbone.
In theory, if a person has less brown adipose fat, they would be expected to have a more defined neck and jawline.
Erectile dysfunction remedy
In African folklore medicine, it has long been used as an aphrodisiac. Modern science has found that it in a dose-dependent manner, it appears to inhibit enzymes which may contribute to erectile dysfunction (ED). (3)
A study out of Cameroon describes the libido boosting effect seen in rats when they are given this herb (4):
“…significantly increased penile erection index, and the frequencies of intromission and ejaculation. These plant extracts were found to enhance the orientation of males towards females by increasing mounting and ano-genital investigatory behavior.”
Research out of Nigeria reports:
“A. melegueta possesses pro-ejaculatory effects.”
Sperm and semen were also better with it versus without. (5)
Some bodybuilding supplements are starting to include it. There’s a good reason why…
When Japanese scientists screened the extracts of 40 different plants, they found…
“…the most potent antiestrogenic effect was revealed by Aframomum melegueta [grains of paradise], Dalbergia candenatensis, Dracena loureiri, and Mansonia gagei.”
If that’s happening in humans, it might be comparable to a testosterone boosting effect for men. (6)
In rats at least, after just 8 days, a testosterone boost has been observed (7):
“Results showed a significant increase in testosterone in serum and testis, cholesterol in testis, a-glucosidase in epididymis and fructose in seminal vesicle after 8 days of treatment of A. melegueta-treated rats (115 vs. 230 mg/kg)”
The 6-gingerol and oleanolic acid in alligator pepper have been found to have an inhibitory effect on the enzymes a-amylase and a-glucosidase. This is believed to be beneficial for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. (8)
Research out of Japan reports that alligator pepper’s essential oils appear to be responsible for the therapeutic effects on type 2 diabetes. (9)
ORAC value testing for alligator pepper has not been done, but a Nigerian university study pitted it against ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the lab for antioxidant activity. It was found to have “potent” activity that rivaled the vitamin:
“The extract (400 mg/kg) showed a significant (P < 0.05) increase in serum catalase and superoxide dismutase activity when compared with the control group.”
The above chart compares grains of paradise vs. ascorbic acid. Based on that, it appears to be an excellent food for anti-aging. (10)
In a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease, gingerol was isolated from grains of paradise seeds and it was found to have beneficial effects on them; decrease in COX-2-linked neuro-inflammation and beta amyloid deposits. Their cognitive performance was also confirmed using various maze tests. (11)
Being that it had a COX-2 inhibitory effect in the brains of rats, it should come as no surprise that the same has been seen in a rat paw edema model. An experiment designed to replicate inflammation from knee pain, back pain, and other joints.
When the active ingredients extracted from grains of paradise were tested individually, the following was observed:
- 20% lower inflammation with the -paradol compound
- 25% lower with -gingerol
- 38% lower with -shogaol
Although this has not been studied in humans, the same COX-2 enzyme contributes to inflammation in a wide range of diseases including osteoarthritis. (12)
Using plant extracts directly obtained from a Cameroon “traditional healer,” scientists in Italy looked at how it interacted with cultured melanoma cells. There was a reduction in their growth and proliferation rate and it influenced related pathways, like the p53, in beneficial ways. (13)
Japanese scientists observed similar effects when tested against cultured human pancreatic cancer cells in the lab. (14)
Even though these effects were seen with minuscule amounts, it’s important to remember these are only in vitro (lab) tests.
May lower cholesterol
In a rodent experiment where 2% of their diet was cholesterol, it was found that when this spice was added, there was an anti-cholesterol effect and better lipid profile that resulted. (15)
May lower blood pressure
Is there any evidence to suggest it’s legit?
The aforementioned cholesterol study also observed a lowering in the rodents’ blood pressure. However, humans have not been clinically tested.
In rats poisoned with carbon tetrachloride, which is a common liver poison used in research, the plant extract had a protective effect:
“…might be due to elevated antioxidative defense potentials, suppressed inflammatory responses and apoptosis of liver tissue.”
Those were how it was believed to work. (18)
Liver injury was also reduced in a rat study where alcohol was used as the toxin. (19)
As a folkloric remedy, Africans have used it for urinary tract infections (UTI) and bacterial infections of soft tissue, like the skin. Scientists in the United Kingdom wanted to test these alleged claims.
The rhizomes (roots) were found to contain compounds (diterpenes) which exhibit potent antibacterial activity in the lab against Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Staphylococcus aureus. (20)
It has also been found to inhibit various mycobacteria, which are a cause of tuberculosis and leprosy. (21)
Its gastrointestinal benefits have been purported for decades, but formal research to test them is quite limited.
When castor oil was used to cause diarrhea in rats, it was found that the seed extract of Aframomum melegueta “may be a useful antidiarrheal agent.”
At a dose of 50 mg per kg of body weight “it offered 100% protection against diarrhea induced by the oil.” In contrast, vitamin C at 100mg/kg and vitamin E at 20 mg/kg offered protection of 80% and 70%, respectively. (22)
Anti-spasm and muscle relaxant
In a study using tracheas isolated from rats, grains of paradise extract was combined with key lime and it was found to have a relaxing effect. This was through inhibiting the ß-adrenergic receptor. (23)
In theory, this might help relieve sore muscles and certain types of pain if the same happens it humans. It has been suggested that the pain of fibromyalgia and temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is influenced through the ß-adrenergic receptor. (24)
When used as a food or dietary supplement in dosages comparable to the average serving size of black pepper, grains of paradise is generally well-tolerated and safe to eat.
Although a grains of paradise allergy has not been reported in medical literature, those with an allergy to ginger should exert caution since it’s a related species.
If the allergic reactions of alligator pepper are comparable to ginger, they may include difficulty breathing, hives, itching, and swelling of the throat, lips, tongue, and/or face.
Eating too much or overdosing
As with similar spices, it’s rich in essential oils which have to be processed by the liver. Too much can overload the liver and cause side effects.
A study was done using rats where they were given daily dosages of 0, 120, 450, and 1500 mg/kg of body weight. After the 28 day treatment, there was a noticeable benefit of lower blood sugar, but in the high dosage groups, liver enlargement was observed. That was likely due to the gingerols, as similar would be expected with the spice ginger. (25)
Using the same mid-range dosage of 450 mg/kg, for a 150 lb human that would equal 30,600 mg. That would be like eating half of this 2.26 oz grinder pictured here, per day!
Of course, that’s a very high amount you would never eat normally, even if you were spicing multiple meals with it daily.
To be safe, high amounts should not be consumed.
How grains of paradise may interact with medications remains unknown. Evidence suggests this spice may interfere with certain enzymes involved with the metabolism of certain drugs.
Aframomum melegueta, as well as the related Aframomum cuspidatum (another African spice), have been found in lab research to inhibit more than 90% of the activity for enzymes CYP3A4, CYP3A5 and CYP3A7. These enzymes are mainly in the liver and intestines. (26)
Grapefruit and pomelo also affect the CYP3A4.
As with certain citrus fruits, grains of paradise should be avoided with some statins like Lipitor, calcium channel blockers for high blood pressure, sedatives, immunosuppressants, antihistamines, and some other types of drugs. (27)
Consult your doctor as any medication that could be adversely affected by grapefruit juice may experience a similar interaction with alligator pepper.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
As with many foods and supplements, there is a lack of human data to determine safety during these periods.
In a study using pregnant rats given 0.5-2 mg of alligator pepper extract for 18 to 25 days, there was a “significant reduction” in the weight gain of the mothers, however their litters were not adversely affected.
While that may sound like a good thing – the moms gaining less pregnancy weight while their babies were healthy – it’s really impossible to know for sure whether or not the litters were truly unaffected like the scientists claim (these are rats, after all).
To be safe, it would be best for pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding to avoid grains of paradise supplements, and any amount for seasoning food which is beyond normal. (28)
It used to be considered the inferior alternative to the rare black pepper in the days of Christopher Columbus. Today, evidence suggests it may be the superior replacement!
Given that the only human clinical data published is related to weight loss and metabolism, all suspected health benefits remain preliminary and unproven. It should not be used for any disease or medical condition.
For now, just enjoy it as a delicious spice for your food!
It is hard to find in grocery stores, though you can easily buy it online. Amazon offers a convenient grinder bottle filled with the seeds or you can even buy a bulk 1 lb bag of the whole seeds, which you can use in a pepper grinder.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.