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The pepper plant is a perennial climbing shrub that originated in India and Sri Lanka. Pepper is considered the world's most important spice and has been used to flavor foods for over 3,000 years. Pepper was once considered so valuable that it was used to ransom Rome from Attila the Hun. Black pepper alone accounts for nearly 35% of the world's spice trade. Unlike many other popular herbs and spices, pepper can only be cultivated in tropical climates. The pepper plant produces a berry called a peppercorn. Both black and white pepper are obtained from the same plant. The colors of pepper are determined by the maturity of the berry at harvest and by different processing methods.

Black pepper is picked when the berries are still green and immature. The peppercorns are then dried in the sun until they turn black. White pepper is picked when the berries are fully ripe and bright red. The red peppercorns are then soaked, washed to remove the skin of the berry, and dried to produce a white to yellowish-white peppercorn. Black pepper has a slightly hotter flavor and stronger aroma than white pepper. Piperine, an alkaloid of pyridine, is the active ingredient in pepper that makes it hot.

Black pepper oil is obtained from crushed berries using solvent extraction. Black pepper oil is used in the treatment of pain, chills, flu, muscular aches, and in some perfumes. It is also helpful in promoting digestion in the colon.

The world's key pepper varieties are known by their place of origin. Popular types of pepper include Lampong Black and Muntok White from Indonesia, Brazilian Black, and Malabar Black and Tellicherry from India.

Prices - The average monthly price for black pepper in 2007 (through June) rose sharply by +55.8% to 161.8 cents per pound, way up from the 14-year low of 75.6 cents per pound in 2004. The average monthly price for white pepper in 2007 rose sharply by +40.9% to 216.4 cents per pound, but that was still only 61% of the record high of 356.5 cents seen in 1998.

Trade - The world's largest exporters of pepper in 2005 (latest data available) were Vietnam (with 88,290 metric tons of exports), Brazil (38,430), Indonesia (34,560), India (21,470), and Malaysia (18,100). U.S. imports of black pepper in 2005 (latest data available) rose +2.4% to a record high of 52,152 metric tons. The primary source of U.S. imports of black pepper was Brazil, which accounted for 27% of U.S. imports, followed by Indonesia with 26%, and India with 7%. Imports from Malaysia have dropped by 90% since 2003. U.S. imports of white pepper in 2005 fell -0.6% to 7,248 metric tons. The primary source of U.S. imports of white pepper was Indonesia, which accounted for 57% of U.S. imports, followed by Brazil with 6%, Singapore with 4%, and Malaysia with 3%.

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