Learn the pros and cons of char­coal, an un­likely detox hero

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - LUCY FRY words COLIN BEAGLEY dig­i­tal ma­nip­u­la­tion

Tra­di­tion­ally a sure­fire sign that you’ve turned the toaster set­ting too high, char­coal is now be­ing seen in a whole new light. It’s of­fi­cially the in­gre­di­ent (if you can call it that) of the moment – He­ston Blu­men­thal’s adding it to bagels, Mal­mai­son ho­tels are serv­ing it up in ice cream and Waitrose’s char­coal piz­zas are fly­ing off the shelves. It doesn’t hurt that char­coal can add a pur­ple tinge to a dish – mak­ing it per­fect for In­sta. Sounds... tasty? But should we re­ally be adding a side of burn to ev­ery dish? And if so, why? Full dis­clo­sure: there’s a dif­fer­ence be­tween the stuff you scrape off your burnt toast and ‘ac­ti­vated’ char­coal. A some­what su­per­charged ver­sion, the lat­ter is made from things like nut­shells and co­conut husks, which are ac­ti­vated – either sim­ply by heat­ing (with ar­gon or ni­tro­gen) to 600900°C, or by ex­po­sure to a strong acid, such as phos­phoric, then heat­ing to 450-900°C – then ground to a pow­der. The method to this mad­ness? Both ac­ti­va­tion pro­cesses cre­ate thou­sands of tiny holes across the sub­stance, which in­creases its sur­face area, mak­ing it su­per ad­sor­bent (nope, not a typo, it means it’s a pro at bind­ing to other com­pounds). It’s this mag­netic-like qual­ity that has health food afi­ciona­dos tak­ing note, as it helps char­coal cleanse the skin from the inside out, im­prove gut health and nat­u­rally pep you up. ‘Ac­ti­vated char­coal pos­sesses a neg­a­tive ionic charge,’ ex­plains nu­tri­tion­ist Tom Oliver. ‘As most of the tox­ins, gases and pol­lu­tants in your body pos­sess a pos­i­tive ionic charge, the two nat­u­rally at­tract.’ ‘We’ve al­ways in­cluded ac­ti­vated char­coal on the menu for its abil­ity to spring-clean the sys­tem,’ says Rose Mann, founder of Lon­don’s Farm Girl Cafe. ‘But it was when we shared an im­age on In­sta­gram of our ac­ti­vated char­coal latte that it be­came

such a pop­u­lar in­gre­di­ent on the menu. Cus­tomers can now add it to any dish they like, just like salt or pep­per. On its own it has a smoky flavour, but mix it with co­conut or cashew milk and it’s pretty much taste­less.’ There’s more than enough solid science to war­rant char­coal’s good rep. Since the 1980s, when re­search from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Davis Med­i­cal Cen­ter backed its abil­ity to ex­tract poi­son from the body, hos­pi­tals have used it dur­ing pro­ce­dures like post-over­dose stom­ach pump­ing. It’s also been shown to help bol­ster heart health – ex­perts from the Univer­sity of Helsinki had study par­tic­i­pants in­gest 8g of ac­ti­vated char­coal three times a day over four weeks and saw their lev­els of bad choles­terol drop by up to 41% (due to it bind­ing to the char­coal and be­ing ex­creted from the body). Not too shabby. Fur­ther good news is that you don’t even need to be a culi­nary cre­ative to ben­e­fit. Sim­ply add a stick of it to your wa­ter bot­tle and glug. ‘It’ll even act as a nat­u­ral wa­ter fil­ter at the same time,’ says bio­chemist and nu­tri­tion­ist Pixie Turner. ‘Ac­tive char­coal is good at re­mov­ing chlo­rine, sed­i­ment and traces of heavy met­als, which force your liver to work harder when pro­cess­ing them.’ If any­thing, the only down­side to char­coal could be that it’s so damn good at its job. ‘When ac­ti­vated char­coal is mixed in with a food source, it binds with all the nu­tri­ents, not just the un­de­sir­ables like sat­u­rated fat,’ ex­plains Bri­tish Di­etetic As­so­ci­a­tion di­eti­tian Michelle Mcguin­ness. ‘Ingest­ing it along with foods high in fat or re­fined su­gar doesn’t au­to­mat­i­cally make them health­ier, be­cause, just as it may at­tach to those com­pounds, it may well at­tach to and ex­crete valu­able fi­bre or pro­tein too.’ There’s also a con­cern that the ac­ti­vated char­coal will ad­sorb wa­ter, from both the food you’re eat­ing and di­rectly from your body. ‘This would lead to de­hy­dra­tion or con­sti­pa­tion,’ says Edzard Ernst, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of com­ple­men­tary medicine at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter. So it’s key to down a pint of wa­ter with that char­coal pizza. Ar­guably, the big­gest worry around the use of ac­ti­vated char­coal is its propen­sity to bind to med­i­ca­tion, ren­der­ing the lat­ter’s pos­i­tive ef­fects on the body null and void. In fact, a re­cent US pe­ti­tion in­sisted ac­ti­vated char­coal ice cream come with a warn­ing. ‘A char­coal latte may not nec­es­sar­ily con­tain enough ac­ti­vated char­coal to have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on ab­sorp­tion of med­i­ca­tion,’ says Mcguin­ness. ‘But it’s some­thing that peo­ple who con­sume higher lev­els, such as cap­sules, should be aware of.’ So, go black or turn back? The ex­pert con­sen­sus is that the odd char­coal pizza or ice cream shouldn’t do your body any harm, but they’re not ex­actly health essen­tials. ‘All you need to re­move tox­ins from your body are your liver and kid­neys,’ adds Turner. Our ver­dict? Fine for a treat – and your In­sta feed – but don’t ex­pect any mir­a­cles.


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