Alligator pepper is a popular herbaceous perennial plant that is originally from West African countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia, Cote D’ivoire, Sierra Leone, Togo, Gambia and Ghana. Botanically known as Aframomum melegueta (Fam. Zingiberaceae), it is called chilla in Hausa, ose-orji in Igbo and ataare in Yoruba. It is also known as hepper pepper, mbongo spice, Afrika kakulesi, melegueta pepper, ginny pepper or Guinea pepper.
Alligator pepper seeds are an excellent source of phytonutrients, such as terpenoids, alkaloids, flavonoids, tannins, cardiac glycosides, saponin and phenolic compound. They contain minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc. They also contain amino acids like l-Threonine and glycine.
Alligator pepper seeds are normally taken raw as snacks. It is usually served together with kola nuts as part of the customary rites in traditional meetings and events, such as baby naming ceremonies, traditional marriages, burial ceremonies, town meetings etc. Both the seeds and leaves can be used for garnishing and for preparing different dishes. The seeds can be crushed and sprinkled on food or used for preparing concoctions.
Pharmacological actions and medicinal uses
The phytonutrients in the seeds of alligator pepper scavenge for free radicals and offer protections against viruses, allergens, microbes, platelet aggregation, tumors, ulcers and hepatotoxins (chemical liver damage) in the body. Thus alligator pepper is very effective in the management of asthma, common cold, vomiting, infectious skin diseases such as measles, chickenpox and smallpox. It boosts the immune system, promotes blood flow and cardiovascular health.
The seed extracts of the alligator pepper can be used for treating gastrointestinal disorders, such as stomach pain, diarrhoea, ulcer and intestinal worms. The seeds aid easy digestion of food, thereby preventing constipation and bloating. Due to its high tannin content with astringent properties, alligator pepper is very effective for healing wounds, treating burns and soothing inflamed mucous membrane.
Studies reveal that the broad spectrum activities of Aframomum melegueta extract extends to bacteria, such as Salmonella typhi, Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumonia. Further studies reveal that the alligator pepper has aphrodisiac, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, counter-irritant and stimulant properties. The leaves are used for preparing herbal medicines for preventing and treating malaria, arresting bleeding and easing menstrual cramps.
Alligator pepper is an ingredient in a soup remedy for female infertility and libido, and also the management of diabetes. Traditionally, it is used to treat fibroids and sleeping sickness.
Alligator pepper is also used in treating snake bites, especially in Asia where so many varieties of snakes abound.
Studies have shown that high dosage of alligator pepper can lead to the termination of pregnancies in the first trimester. Studies also show that high quantities of alligator pepper can reduce prolactin secretion in a lactating woman.
Economic uses and potentials
Alligator pepper is useful in food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries with a potential for providing income for individuals, companies, communities and the country at large. Fresh alligator pepper may cost about ₦500 for 170gm or ₦150 each.
Some companies were reported to make an average of US$1 million in 2010 and US$1 million – US$2.5 million in 2013 from the sale of alligator pepper. It has been reported that a 5 pound bulk bag costs $161.01.
There are potentials in the cultivation, processing and distribution of alligator pepper.
Pharm. Ngozika Okoye
MSc, MPH, FPCPharm (Nigeria Natural Medicine Development Agency)