Feature: Activated charcoal
Activated charcoal is the latest health trend and it can be applied to beauty and food. Laura Gelder asks, can it work onboard?
People put strange things onto and into their bodies in the name of wellness – they douse their cereal with tiger nut milk, (actually a tuber rather than a nut, but apparently it’s stripy), take straw baths, sip turmeric lattes and now they're swallowing and slathering on black activated charcoal.
Activated charcoal has long been added to beauty products, with face masks, soaps and whitening toothpastes containing it widely available.
It’s also popular as a natural way to absorb unpleasant odours, bacteria, pollutants and allergens, and dehumidify air, without adding a strong masking scent to the mix (which might not be appreciated by passengers on a packed plane or train).
But now activated charcoal is popping up in food and drink product ranges because, it supporters claim, it can cleanse us of toxins, beat bloating and even cure a heavy hangover.
A few years ago there weren’t many edible things that came in black – squid ink pasta and liquorice for two – but in the age of Instagram serving black food is a one-way ticket to social media fame for many businesses. Think of it as the edgy cousin of the unicorn frappuccino/ice cream/cup cake.
It sounds like something you’d use to start a barbeque and it’s not far off! Activated charcoal is made from carbon-containing material, like wood or coconut shells, which is heated at high temperatures to create charcoal, then oxidised – or activated.
The activated version is porous with lots of small holes in its surface. Its this sponge-like structure that allows it to soak up whatever it comes into contact with, hence its use for detoxing.
But dietician Eloise Bain says to be wary: “The detox ability of activated charcoal is undisputed, it's always been used by emergency doctors to prevent poisoning as it absorbs chemicals, but charcoal can't choose between harmful chemicals and healthy nutrients, binding to both so that you may lose the benefit of the latter. It may also mop up medications.”
In reality most products only have small amounts of activated charcoal in them though. One of the UK's market-leading charcoal drinks, Wow Body Cleanse, recommends it's consumed at least an hour before or after medication but it uses just 0.5g in its blend of cold-pressed juices, derived from coconut shells and put through a steaming process. WOW founder, Oliver Dickinson says: “WOW Body Cleanse is an affordable, great-tasting, cold-pressed drink, great for resetting your body or as a refreshing pick-me-up.”
The low-calorie drink doesn’t taste remotely of ash and comes in three fresh flavours: Lemon & Ginger, Mint and Raspberry.
It’s not alone in the market. High-end supermarket Waitrose has been selling a salmon and cream cheese charcoal bread bagel for two years, endorsed by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.
Burger King was an early pioneer, offering a ‘kuro burger’ in some of its Japanese stores as far back as 2012, sandwiching a patty between a charcoal bun, with black cheese, and a black sauce of squid ink.
Some experts may not be convinced of its health credentials. The New York Department of Health banned foods containing activated charcoal this June. But in 2011 the European Food Safety Authority supported the claim that it can reduce flatulence! Travel and troubled stomachs go hand-in-hand so perhaps this is a trend which has legs for onboard hospitality.
As an element within onboard F&B, at its worst activated charcoal is probably an ineffective but comforting placebo. At its best it demonstrates wellness awareness and is bang on trend. It’s also a natural colourant which makes a dish stand out form the social media crowd. Whether it’s a passing fad or not, it’s one worth considering – after all, the unicorn 'fad' is still here!
Facing page: activated charcoal in a face mask and a bagel. This page: charcoal ice cream; a charcoal burger bun; and Wow Body Cleanse