Age-old nutritional advice has been to ‘eat a rainbow’ of fruit and veg to get the widest variety, and range of vitamins and minerals. But the latest health food sensation, with an eye-catching social media presence, is a distinctly non-vibrant shade of black.
From inky cheese to macho black noodles and even macaroons, the move to the dark side is driven by activated charcoal. It’s a completely different process to char-grilling, in which potentially carcinogenic chemicals can form on the surface of burnt food.
As well as being an unlikely food colouring, charcoal is being touted as a health hero, credited with everything from banishing bloating to detoxing the body and preventing a hangover. But just how true are the claims? I examined its uses, and asked the experts for their verdicts…
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A woman was photographed taking a bite out of a charcoal burger bun
IT CAN BE A LIFESAVER
Medical-grade activated charcoal, usually produced from burned coconut shells and ‘activated’ by having steam forced through it (giving it a more porous structure and bigger surface area than normal charcoal), has for years been administered in hospital emergency departments to people who have swallowed poison or overdosed. Under a microscope, activated charcoal looks like a honeycomb with a massively porous structure that attracts and traps poisons, chemicals and gases.
A 50g dose is consumed in a drink or directly into the stomach via a tube. The toxins adhere to the large surface area of the activated charcoal and then pass harmlessly out of the gut. But beyond this very specific medical usage, any health benefits of activated charcoal are far less proven, especially in the much smaller amounts usually added to food.
OF COURSE… GWYNNIE IS A FAN
Food manufacturers and supermarkets tend to distance themselves from health claims for charcoal. Charcoal-laced foods like Black As Coal Cheddar mini truckles (£3.50 each, nibblenose.co.uk), Yau’s Charcoal Noodles (240g, £4.84, superfooduk.com) and Salted Caramel with Charcoal Macaroons (£9 for seven, oncafe.london) may look great, but there’s no evidence they’re better for you. Waitrose has a charcoal pizza coming out next month and a spokesman said: ‘It’s there to add to the taste and look of the food.’
Charcoal masks are becoming more popular and activated charcoal is said to draw out toxins and excess oil from pores
The pizza will be the third charcoal-enhanced food item sold by Waitrose, adding to their Charcoal & Sesame Wholemeal Biscuits (130g, £2.49) and Heston from Waitrose Charcoal Bagel with Tea Smoked Salmon (£3.80).
Celebrity health endorsements – Gwyneth Paltrow’s website and Kim Kardashian have both backed ‘cleansing’ charcoal lemonade – undoubtedly boost sales.’Some people with buy in to that,’ says Michelle McGuinness of the British Dietetic Association. ‘However, adding charcoal to foods, that are high in salt, sugar or saturated fat, does not make them healthier.’
IT MIGHT GIVE YOU BRIGHTER SKIN
In skin products such as Clinique Pore Refining Solutions Charcoal Mask (100ml, £23, clinique.co.uk) and Origins Clear Improvement Mask (100ml, £24, origins.co.uk) activated charcoal is said to draw out toxins and excess oil from pores. It’s a claim that may have some virtue, according to consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokeswoman Dr Anjali Mahto. ‘There is plenty of anecdotal evidence it can help regulate sebum production in those prone to break-outs,’ she says.
A WAY TO BEAT WIND…
‘Activated charcoal does have an approved health claim for helping deal with flatulence, but it’s noteworthy that the claim can only be made for food when it contains one gram per portion,’ says registered dietitian Helen Bond.
Botanic Lab’s Isotonic Refuel drink (£60, 8 x 250ml bottles, botanic-lab.co.uk) contains just half this amount – 0.5g activated charcoal – per bottle. Trendy coffee shops are offering charcoal lattes and the charcoal drink trend seems to be taking off, but Helen Bond says: ‘I’d be surprised if any latte or milkshake would reach the right level [of charcoal content].’
Supplements such as Holland & Barrett’s Activated Charcoal (200 capsules, £9.99, hollandandbarrett.com) and Lifeplan WindAway Activated Charcoal (30 capsules, £4.99, hollandandbarrett.com) are more likely to provide doses of charcoal high enough to ease wind, but McGuinness urges anyone thinking about taking a supplement regularly to consult a doctor.
Charcoal is being used in drinks (pictured) and some trendy coffee shops are offering charcoal lattes
… BUT NOT A HANGOVER
Some blogs recommend it, but there’s no evidence activated charcoal will save you from an upset stomach or banging head.
‘Although activated charcoal is an effective method for treating many forms of toxic poisoning, it doesn’t have the same effect with alcohol,’ says McGuinness. ‘Activated charcoal is not absorbed by the body and certainly does not cleanse or detox your liver or kidneys.’
A customer was pictured holding up a charcoal ice cream as charcoal drink trend seems to be taking off
BLACK TOOTHPASTE FOR A WHITER SMILE?
Charcoal has also made its way into dental products such as Beverly Hills Formula Activated Charcoal Toothpaste (100ml, £4.99, superdrug.com) and Ecodenta Extra Black Whitening Toothpaste (100ml, £1.99, hollandandbarrett.com), on the premise that it can effectively absorb stains.
However experts warn that charcoal hasn’t been proven for dental use. ‘As a potentially abrasive agent it could damage the enamel,’ says the British Dental Association’s scientific adviser, Damien Walmsley.
‘Bleaching products used by dentists safely remove deep and surface stains from the teeth, whereas this charcoal-based product is untested and a gamble. Using it as a substitute for standard toothpaste means you will also miss out on the benefit of fluoride.’
Charcoal has also made its way into dental products such as teeth whitening powder (pictured)