Learn the pros and cons of charcoal, an unlikely detox hero
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.
CHARCOAL CAN CLEANSE THE SKIN, IMPROVE GUT HEALTH AND PEP YOU UP