By Prof. Raphael Nyarkotey Obu
Alligator pepper (also known as mbongo spice or hepper pepper) is a West African spice made from the seeds and seed pods of Aframomum danielli, A. citratum, or A. exscapum. It is a close relative of grains of paradise, obtained from the closely related species, Aframomum melegueta or “grains of paradise”. Unlike grains of paradise, which are generally sold as only the seeds of the plant, alligator pepper is sold as the entire pod containing the seeds (in the same manner as another close relative, black cardamom).
The plants which provide alligator pepper are herbaceous perennial flowering plants of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae), native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Once the pod is open and the seeds are revealed, the reason for this spice’s common English name becomes apparent as the seeds have a papery skin enclosing them and the bumps of the seeds within this skin are reminiscent of an alligator’s back.
As mbongo spice, the seeds of alligator pepper are often sold as grains isolated from the pod and with the outer skin removed. Mbongo spice is most commonly either A. danielli or A. citratum, and has a more floral aroma than A. exscapum (which is the commonest source of the entire pod).
It is a common ingredient in West African cuisine, where it imparts both pungency and a spicy aroma to soups and stews.
Use in cuisine
In the West African subregion, one article reported that alligator pepper is an expensive spice, hence is used sparingly( Punch Newspapers. 2020). It is normally processed by pounding a single pod using a pestle and mortar before half of it is added (along with black pepper) as a flavoring to West African soups or boiled rice. The spice can also be substituted in any recipe using grains of paradise or black cardamom to provide a hotter and more pungent flavor.
It has also been reported that in the Yoruba culture, alligator pepper is provided to babies immediately after they are born as part of the routine baby-welcoming process, and it is also used as an ingredient at traditional meet-and-greets. Also, in Igboland, alligator pepper, ósè ọ́jị́ with kola nuts are used in naming ceremonies, as presentations to visiting guests, and for other social events with the kola nut rite. The Igbo eat the alligator pepper together with kola nuts. A case study was highlighted in the handbook of Nigerian culture(1992), Dept. of Culture, Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, which reports that in every Igbo ceremony, alligator peppers and kola nuts are presented to guests at the top of the agenda and before any other food or entertainment. Prayers and libations are made together with kola nuts and alligator pepper. It has also been reported that during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was used in medicine(The Guardian Nigeria News, 2020).
Alligator Pepper, Science
One study by Adefegha et al.(2016) found that is effective in lowering cholesterol and hypertension. Another study believed that those who suddenly gain weight due to pregnancy can lead to higher rates of complications of pregnancy and delivery. Hence, one animal study by Inegbenebor et al.(2009) examined this pepper on gestational weight gain reduction and found that the active component of the aqueous extract of alligator pepper is beneficial in gestational weight gain reduction.
Sexual function, Antioxidant
On sexual performance, one comparative study by Adefegha et al.(2017) found alligator pepper to have a higher potential to improve sexual function in folkloric medicine. On antioxidant ability, four studies from Nigeria (Kazeem et al. 2012; Ilic et al. 2014; Onoja et al. 2014; Oboh and Imafidon, 2018) concluded that alligator pepper, ginger, and nutmeg displayed good antioxidants and are safe for consumption.
One study by Ukeh et al.(2009) found that combining alligator pepper with other spices such as ginger could be used as a repellent against maize weevils.
Though it is safe, one study by Inegbenebor et al.(2022) found that ingestion of large quantities of Alligator pepper poses a health risk to women in their first trimester of pregnancy. This study used Fifteen male rats and fifteen female rats of proven fertility from a pilot study randomly paired in fifteen cages in a well-ventilated room. After three days of mating, the males were withdrawn from the females, which were allowed to stay in their separate maternity cages for 18-25 days. The females in the control group were fed with normal rat chow and clean drinking water for the duration of the experiment. Each of the rats in the experimental group was served 20 g of rat chow mixed with 50mg of Alligator pepper for one day only and thereafter fed with normal rat chow and clean drinking water for 18-25 days. The rats in the control group had a mean of 7 liters each, while the rats in the experimental group did not litter at all.
Studies conducted on alligator pepper are based on animals and human studies are needed to validate their benefit. However, these animal studies have demonstrated alligator pepper’s role in improving sexual health, lowering cholesterol, and antioxidants, and as a repellent to fight maize weevils.
Prof. Nyarkotey has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations to justify his write-ups. My articles are for educational purposes and do not serve as Medical advice for Treatment. I aim to educate the public about evidence-based scientific Naturopathic Therapies.
The writer is a Professor of Naturopathic Healthcare, a Medical Journalist, and a science writer. President, Nyarkotey University College of Holistic Medicine & Technology (NUCHMT)/African Naturopathic Foundation, Ashaiman, Ghana. Currently BL Candidate at the Gambia Law School, Banjul. E. mail: email@example.com. + 2207452652(for more information)