acid reflux

The King of Spices - Black Pepper

You can open anyone’s spice cupboard and it’s there. There may not be any cumin or turmeric or cinnamon or Chinese 5-spice powder, but there will definitely be black pepper. It is the most common spice in British cupboards and is even ahead of salt now as salt sales have fallen over the years. It’s on most restaurant tables and in many places the waiter will approach with a giant pepper grinder to spice up your dish.


I love black pepper and I think I have a high tolerance for it, using more of it on my food than most people. Years ago I had a Jaime Oliver recipe that I must have pulled out of a magazine somewhere for tofu in a lentil and pepper sauce. The sauce contained nearly as many pepper corns as lentils – at least that’s what it tasted like – and I adored it. Sadly, I lost the recipe. Unless my husband lost it for me as he doesn’t love black pepper quite as much as I do.


The Latin name of the plant is piper nigrum. There is no botanical relationship at all to the other peppers: chilli peppers or bell peppers, which are from the capsicum family. Rather they were merely named after black pepper, because the hotness and spiciness of hot peppers was deemed similar to it. Black peppercorns are actually the fruit of the black pepper tree. Green peppercorns are said fruit harvested before it is ripe and have a lovely ‘herbal’ taste. They usually sold in brine or pickled and are nice slightly crushed in cream cheese, for example. White pepper is the seed of the peppercorn with the dark outer shell removed.

Black peppercorns originally come from India. In ancient and medieval times it was highly valuable and sometimes even used as currency. In the Middle Ages the merchant cities Genova and Venice had a monopoly on the land routes to Asia and were controlling the spice trade. This encouraged others to get access to India via the sea, including a Western route. Today of course, black pepper is not that hard to come by. Around the world, we consume about 124,000 tons a year of the stuff.

Today, it is probably considered one of the more humble spices, cheap and accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not of great value and like most real foods, black pepper is not just tasty, it also has some health benefits. It can induce sweating, relieve flatulence and has diuretic properties, i. e. it makes you wee more.

Black pepper also stimulates the taste buds, which in turn send a message to the stomach to increase stomach acid production. Now why on earth would you want to do that? So many people are taking antacid medication or over-the-counter remedies because they are suffering from acid reflux. I’ve written about that in more detail here, but in short: acid reflux is in most cases a symptom of too little stomach acid, not too much and acid blockers are only going to make the problem worse.

Black pepper also dramatically enhances the absorption of certain nutrients, such as selenium, B vitamins and beta-carotene and also turmeric, which is another hugely beneficial spice. That’s why most recipes for ‘Turmeric Latte’ or ‘Golden Milk’ include some black pepper. Like turmeric, black pepper also supports the liver’s detoxification process, so don’t be shy and spice up your food with the black stuff.

You can buy it as whole peppercorns, coarsely ground or finely ground. It’s best to buy whole peppercorns as they keep longer and you’ll know exactly what’s in your pepper: just pepper. Pre-ground powdered black pepper may also contain other spices and stays fresh for only about three months. Black peppercorns, on the other hand, keep almost indefinitely.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have bought and discarded a number of pepper mills in my lifetime. If the grinder is made of plastic, it may not last very long and not grind very well from the start. When it comes to pepper mills, I think it is worth investing in a good quality one with a metal grinder. Personally, I like my pepper best coarsely ground and I use a mortar (which is also suitable for a fine grind).

You know what to do with pepper, so I don’t think you’ll need many suggestions, but have you tried pairing it with some of the more unlikely partners? How about black pepper and vanilla – a surprisingly tasty combination. It’s also nice on strawberries (with a trickle of balsamic vinegar).

And here’s what Michael McIntyre has to say about pepper:

Food Allergy or Food Intolerance? What's the difference?

Did you know that 45% of us are suffering from some kind of food intolerance? Yet most of us don't even know it and have accepted the often mild, but niggling symptoms as part of the way we are. Others are quite sure that something doesn't agree with them. Note though that 'food allergy' and 'food intolerance' are not the same thing. Read my today's blog to find out how they differ.

5 Top Tips for Healthy Ageing

Throughout life, our nutrient requirements change as our body changes. As we get older, muscle mass and stomach acid levels, for example, naturally decline. You can support your body by providing the nutrients it requires and by adding in some exercise. Don't worry, there's no need to run a marathon, just don't stop moving. 

Coffee - It's not black and white

Do you love your coffee? And if you do, do you feel guilty about it? After all, coffee seems to be bad for you and many health experts discourage its consumption. But as with most things concerning health and nutrition: It’s not black and white. We all know people who can guzzle a “venti” (20 fl oz = 600 ml) and still have a nap afterwards, when others only so much as sniff an espresso and are wired all day long. That’s because how you respond to caffeine - coffee’s most predominant active compound - is governed by your genes, some of which affect the way your liver processes caffeine, others influence how the brain reacts.

Coffee and Blood Sugar Levels If you are stressed - and who isn’t these days - or are struggling with your weight, you should learn how to control blood sugar levels. You need to avoid sudden spikes, because high blood sugar levels stimulate the release of insulin, which in turn contributes to weight gain. Caffeine, a stimulant, does raise blood sugar levels. However, a Finnish study found that coffee increases insulin sensitivity (that’s a good thing) and lowers the risk for diabetes II. This is effect is attributed not to caffeine, but chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant in coffee. Chlorogenic acid is also responsible for many of the other beneficial properties of coffee.

So, coffee does raise blood sugar levels to some extent. We all love a biscuit or even a slice of cake alongside a cup of coffee, but combining coffee with sugar triples it's effect on blood sugar. Bad news, I know. So on to the good news …

Coffee and cardio-vascular disease Coffee is often thought to adversely affect the heart. However, according to an article published in Current Vascular Pharmacology in 2014, it is actually beneficial when consumed in moderation. Coffee lowers the risk for stroke and it does not even affect blood pressure to any great degree, but patients suffering from arrhythmia should avoid it. A word of warning though: Some people’s genetic make-up causes them to metabolise caffeine more slowly, and for them, there is indeed an increased risk of non-fatal heart attacks. (Fast caffeine metabolisers, on the other hand, actually lowered their risk of heart attack through coffee consumption.) Also, even if blood pressure is not greatly affected in healthy people, you should exercise caution and steer clear of coffee if you know that you suffer from hypertension.

But coffee does hurt the stomach. Doesn't it? It appears that even the most stubborn rumours about the ill effects of coffee are being overturned. A 2013 cross-sectional study in Japan found no correlation between coffee consumption and stomach ulcers, upper intestinal ulcers, or heartburn.

More good news Coffee has been found to protect from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, depression, liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Moreover, higher coffee consumption was found to significantly reduce the risk of recurrence of colon cancer, and reduces the overall risk of mortality meaning: Coffee makes you live longer - at least as long as you do not overdo it.

Who should avoid coffee? If your genes have not equipped you to tolerate coffee well, you very likely already noticed. If it makes you feel jittery, wired, causes tremors and gives you palpitations - avoid. You won’t need me to tell you that. Also, coffee is undoubtedly an addictive substance, as anyone who has ever gone through withdrawal will know, and that in itself will put a lot of people off who would rather not go there.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women and those trying for a baby should avoid coffee as it has been linked to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and lower birth weight. If you can’t live without the stuff, do not have ore than one cup a day.

If you are not sure whether or not you are a slow metaboliser - whose risk for heart disease, if you remember, is increased when they drink coffee - and would like to find out, you could do a gene test, which have recently become available at very affordable prices. (Note: The tests look at a number of health genes, not just the way you metabolise coffee.)

How to make your coffee The way you make coffee can change its properties: Boiled and unfiltered coffee may raise cholesterol and triglycerides, and paper-filtered coffee appears to contribute to inflammation. A possible reason for this is that with this method, the beneficial polyphenols in coffee are filtered out.

Consider what you’re adding Much of what gives coffee a bad reputation is not so much the coffee itself, but ingredients we like to add to it: Coffee as such has 0 calories. It may contribute to weight gain by raising blood sugar levels, but all by itself, it won’t do much damage. Consider, however, what you add to it: sugar, including syrups, lead to much greater blood sugar spikes and thus greater insulin excretion. Sugar also has powerful pro-inflammatory properties, and avoiding it is generally a good idea. Milk and cream (and sugar) all increase the calorie content of your coffee. And need I even mention marshmallows?

On the other hand, you can improve on the properties of coffee by adding either cinnamon or ginger to it. Both substances have been tested in combination with coffee - albeit only in vitro - and were found to have enhanced anti-radical and anti-inflammatory properties. Other spices that go well with coffee are cardamom, cloves, or saffron.

Is decaf a good alternative? No, is the short answer.

First of all, be aware that “decaffeinated” does not mean that the caffeine content is zero. Processing usually removes 97% of the caffeine. Most commercial brands use chemical solvents to remove caffeine from the green coffee beans, and although the industry ensures us that there will be no residues when we drink it, I personally just don’t like the thought, and it will still impact on the environment.

How much coffee is ok? It appears that coffee consumption “in moderation” is not only harmless, but even healthy for most people. But how much is “moderate”? I’ve seen recommendations that say up to 600 mg of caffeine daily is ok, but most are lower, 400 - 500 mg. Translated into cups of coffee this is approx. 4 - 5 cups. That amount of coffee is also associated with the lowest risk of death (meaning: people drinking less than that are at a higher risk of death!).

So, that’s the lowdown on coffee. If you would like to read more on coffee, click here. Or - better still - sign up to my newsletter. Tomorrow morning's edition has more on antioxidants and a recipe for cinnamon almond latte.

Tomato - The Fruit of Paradise

A few years ago in Romania, I had a tomato salad that reminded me of how tomatoes are supposed to taste. I had forgotten. The tomatoes in my salad had most likely been grown in soil, outdoors - with the benefit of Mediterranean sun and heat - and been harvested only hours or at most days before I had the pleasure of eating them. At home in Germany and the UK, most of the tomatoes I’d eaten in the years before this experience had come from supermarkets. They’d most likely been grown in greenhouses, without actual soil, but fibrous substitutes. They may have been picked prematurely and ripened “off the vine”. This allows for transport over long distances and for storage, which ripe tomatoes would survive for very long. Whilst there are hundreds of different varieties, the most common ones are not grown for flavour, but even size, shape and looks. The way tomatoes are commercially grown changed slowly over the years, and before I knew it I had forgotten what real tomatoes taste like.

Shopper’s Guide

So, what’s the best we can do, if we do not live on the Mediterranean shores and don’t have the space or inclination to grow our own? On the EWG's (Environmental Working Group) list of the most and least pesticide laden foods, tomatoes are currently at number 32 (of 48 tested foods). That’s not bad and it means that you can fairly happily go for non-organic tomatoes. Be aware, however, that cherry tomatoes are on number 10 and therefore within the “Dirty Dozen”.

The supermarket’s cheapest tomatoes may not be the best, but mass produced, watery, evenly shaped and pretty looking tomato impostors. That said, shelling out a lot of money for the “deluxe” versions on the vine, in small quantities and wrapped in lots and lots of plastic doesn’t guarantee quality either. For the best tomatoes money can buy, go to the market or your local greengrocer. As they don’t buy vast quantities, they are able to purchase varieties you wouldn’t find in a supermarket, and you are even likely to pay much less.

Borough Market in London has a stall dedicated to tomatoes

First of all: Buy them when in season only. The British season is from June to October. Outside side of this time, they can only be grown as described above and they won’t be all that nice anyway. In the winter, you may want to use tomato paste or passata instead. Within season, go for plump, fully coloured tomatoes that are firm and not bruised. At home, wash them in a white vinegar and water solution to get rid of any pesticide residue (here’s how) and then store them at room temperature in a worm dry place, in a paper bag if you would like them to ripen further.

Health Benefits

You probably already that tomatoes came to Europe from Mexico shortly after Columbus landed in the West Indies. The Spanish conquistadores brought the seeds over with them. What is less known is that the lovely red fruit was long thought of as poisonous, as the tomato is related to the deadly nightshade, and indeed: tomato leaves contain toxic alkaloids, so don’t add them to your salads, but as we now know, the fruit is not. So, in Europe, we only started eating tomatoes about 200 years ago.

Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C, carotenes - especially lycopene -, biotin and Vitamin K. They also supply several B vitamins and fibre. Their most famous health benefit is certainly lycopene: It has been found to be protective against, breast, prostate, colon and lung cancer and has been shown to lover the risk of heart disease. Lycopene is also what makes the tomato red, so there is more in red tomatoes than, say, yellow ones, and the riper the tomato, the higher its lycopene content. While processing - such as cooking - destroys some of the vitamin content, especially vitamin C, it does in fact increase lycopene levels up to five-fold. Adding fat, for example olive oil, greatly enhances absorption. So, don’t turn up your nose to tinned tomatoes (but see below), tomato paste and puree, tomato juice or passata. It’s all good!

Anything bad?

As mentioned above, the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, along with peppers, aubergines, potatoes and chilli. There is anecdotal evidence that joint pain - especially in osteoarthritis - was reduced or disappeared when sufferers cut out vegetables of the nightshade family. While this is yet to be scientifically proven, it won’t do any harm to try and see if it makes a difference for you. Be aware, however, that you need to be meticulous and that it may take at least six weeks for symptoms to subside. Worth a try though.

Another downside of tomatoes is that they may weaken the oesophageal sphincter, a ring-shaped muscle that separates your stomach from your oesophagus. It opens to allow food into your stomach, but then closes tightly to keep stomach acid where it belongs. If you suffer from frequent acid reflux, keep a food diary to see whether it occurs after eating tomatoes.

And then there are tinned tomatoes … They are preserved through cooking - which does increase their lycopene content and would make them a great source of said carotene in the winter - and then stored in tins. If those tins are not lined with plastic, the acid from the tomatoes can make metal molecules leach into the tomatoes, which would affect their taste and you may not want metal in your food either. Most tins, however, are plastic lined, but that’s not great either, as again the acid can cause bisphenol A (BPA) from the plastic to leach into the tomatoes. BPA is a xenoestrogen - a foreign oestrogen - which can have a similar, but stronger, effect as natural oestrogen. You’re better off without it. See if you can find tomatoes or tomato paste in jars rather than tins.

Every summer, I buy a few kilos of tomatoes, leave them at room temperature for a few days, then chop them up and cook them in my largest (stainless steel - you don’t want aluminium for tomatoes) pot and then spoon them still hot into sterilised jars, which I close immediately. This stash, perhaps topped up with passata from glass jars, happily sees me through the winter.