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Why Does Pepper Make You Sneeze?

Sneezing is the body's way of getting rid of piperine, a pepper ingredient.
A woman sneezing.
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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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Anyone who likes preparing a good meal has undoubtedly had the experience of enthusiastically shaking or grinding the pepper-mill over a pot only to find themselves in a sneezing fit moments later. Pepper contains an alkaloid of pyridine called piperine. Piperine irritates the nerve endings inside the nose, triggering a sneeze. The sneeze is a natural reaction to the irritant, meant to clear it from the nasal passages. At the same time mucous membranes activate to help wash away the offending agent.

Despite the irritating characteristics of piperine, it also gives pepper its flavor. It has been a popular and significant spice as far back as prehistoric times. It originated from the region known today as Kerala, India where pepper plants grow wild. It was the top export of India as long as 4,000 years ago, and it ruled the spice trade. For millennia this spice was too expensive for anyone but the rich, and was known as “black gold.” In 1213 B.C. Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II, was mummified with a peppercorn in each nostril. History records that Attila the Hun demanded a ton of pepper from Rome when it fell. In the Middle Ages it was used to pay debts, dowries and rent, giving rise to the enduring phrase “peppercorn rent.”

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White, green and black pepper all come from the same flowering vine. Only processing techniques differ. For the black type, green unripe berries are harvested, soaked and dried. This process transforms the skin of the berry into a blackish brown color, resulting in peppercorns. Peppercorns are then ground up for use.

A different process is used for the green typs, which retains the color of the unripe berries by freeze-drying or using washes of sulphur dioxide. It might also be pickled in vinegar or salt solutions. Pink and red peppers are preserved using both vinegar and salt.

Each berry on a pepper plant contains a single white seed. When ripened berries are soaked for an elongated period of time, the tough husks soften and fall away revealing the seeds of white pepper.

This spice is reportedly the most traded spice worldwide. Vietnam is the leading exporter with Indonesia and India close behind. These three countries alone were responsible for producing over 217,000 tons (245 kilgrams) of pepper in 2003, with other countries producing their own hefty shares, resulting in well over a quarter of a million tons produced each year.

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Discuss this Article

widget2010
Post 2

I have read that the ingredients in chili peppers that make them "hot" can speed a person's metabolism and help him or her suppress hunger at the same time. The piperine in black pepper can do the same thing.

anon6683
Post 1

There is a company called Watkins headquartered in Minnesota that claims that its black pepper does not make one sneeze. Yet it is of good flavor. Does that mean that the piperine is removed?

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