In 2014, Burger King Japan introduced the Black Burger as an innovative marketing ploy for the local market. Credit goes to social and digital media; the black food phenomenon spread like wildfire across the world. Enter, activated charcoal. For little over two years, it has been swarming super market aisles in India, whether in over the counter medicine, beauty or food items alike.
“Activated charcoal is known to trap toxins in the body due to its porous nature when consumed and eliminates the same from the system,” says Bangalore-based nutritionist and food coach Anupama Menon. It is sourced from carbon-rich natural products such as coconut shells and bamboo, which is then heated till the carbon becomes dry and porous. It is this reason activated charcoal is also known as active carbon.
How Does Activated Charcoal Work?
While it adds drama and an exotic element when it comes to plating food, there is barely any nutrition or nutritional benefits that activated charcoal offers. “It’s simply a product in the body which acts like a train, trapping and carrying all toxic elements with it as it exits the body,” Menon further adds. The process is known as Adsorption where molecules of toxic entities in any form sticks to the activated carbon surface. “This quality of Adsorption has put activated charcoal on a health benefit pedestal. Amongst its benefits, it’s best known to provide relief from gas and bloating, and is also known to treat hangovers,” she continues. Activated charcoal has nothing to do with food nutrition, it just cleanses the system and flushes out the chemicals and other wastes that are foreign in nature, without affecting your gut flora. The reason you can opt for activated charcoal laced foods is because it aids your digestive system. Your body stands radically cleansed, enabling better nutritional absorption and health in the long run.
Is Activated Charcoal Healthy?
While activated charcoal face masks have become a viral social media phenomenon, it has also become a food phenomenon. “Achieving black colour in food was previously not very easy without altering the flavour or taste of the dish. The earlier commonly used ingredients would be squid ink or caramel, which do not blend into many recipes,” explains executive chef Sudhir Nair, Courtyard by Marriott Outer Ring Road Bengaluru. Activated charcoal, on the other hand, has no taste or flavour of its own, making it easy to incorporate it in recipes. “The striking black colour when used in contrast with other bright colours makes a dish Instagram-ready or social media worthy, hence it is such a rage,” he continues.
With limited health benefits, from ice creams to cocktails, activated charcoal has been stirring up the pot of creativity for chefs. Some chefs have steered clear of falling prey to the trend, while others have willing accepted the trend such as executive sous chef Lokesh Jarodia at Novotel Imagica Khopoli who says, “This interest is just like the rainbow trend which was extremely popular before the charcoal trend. This, according to me, is a trend that not many are into, but is something not many have tried it yet. No matter how intriguing this trend may sound, one must like the taste of the charcoal as well; it isn’t one of the typical flavours our palate is used to.” Activated charcoal tends to have a chalky aftertaste, so for many, it is an acquired taste. It is most popularly used in flour-based glutinous recipes like bread, waffles, and cakes or mixed with water and drinks, says chef Nair. Often desserts and sweet dishes work best with activated charcoal since the sweetness balances the chalkiness. “But since you are trying to rid your body off chemicals, adding chemicals with the charcoal supplement doesn’t make sense,” points out Menon. Sweeten it naturally, if needed, with honey or other natural sweeteners.
As the adage goes ‘Too much of a good thing’, too much of activated carbon can cause complications, especially for those suffering from intestinal bleeding, chronic dehydration or recent abdominal surgery. “Charcoal may affect the absorption of some prescription medication and supplements too. Hence it must be ingested 2 hours prior to any food or medicine,” adds Menon.
If you are in the mood to experiment, here’s Chef Jarodia’s activated charcoal waffle recipe to get you started!