Activated charcoal set to sweep UK restaurant menus

Charcoal burger bun at Burger King Japan

Burger King Japan took activated charcoal mainstream in late 2014 with its black bamboo charcoal burger bun

Not content with smoky oils, water and essences, restaurants are now burning it up by adding activated charcoal to dishes, smoothies and even ice cream in the ever-reaching search for that umami touch and added health kick. Produce Business UK takes a closer look at the unlikely trend that could further boost the nutritional power of fresh produce dishes and drinks or even be achieved by charring fruits and vegetables

Trend: Eating activated charcoal.

Really?: We know, it’s sounds odd and, frankly, pretty dangerous but it’s not your everyday barbecue-enhancing charcoal that’s being consumed; it’s active charcoal. Don’t you feel a lot better now?

What it is: Originally a trend amongst the uber-health conscious à la Gwyneth Paltrow, activated charcoal has been used as a detox aid and it’s known for its cleansing qualities. That said, you shouldn’t eat too much as it will eventually break down vitamins in your system too. It first became popular as a pill supplement to be taken with food to counteract any toxins consumed. There’s also a powdered charcoal that’s available in capsules from health store Holland & Barrett.

Also known as: Carbon.

How it works: Activated charcoal is produced by heating wood (or another high-carbon product) to a high temperature to create charcoal, which is oxidised to leave almost pure carbon. In being treated with oxygen, the charcoal’s ions gain a negative charge, whilst becoming an insoluble fibre that the stomach doesn’t absorb.

When consumed, the toxins in your intestines are absorbed by the porous charcoal, which covers your stomach completely. The preparation process gives activated charcoal the ability to absorb various chemicals to its surface. In the gastrointestinal tract, it reduces the absorption of drugs and other poisons after they have been ingested, but before they have been absorbed into the body, making it a great antidote.

Homemade activated charcoal or ‘ash flavour’ that offers the same effects can also be made from bamboo, fruit, vegetables or coconuts.

History: In a medicinal form, charcoal has been used since the time of the Ancient Egyptians, who first discovered its attributes. The Phoenicians treated their water with charcoal and kept their drinking water in charred barrels – a system that is still used to filter water today. In the 19th century, charcoal was used as an antidote for poisons.

The science bit: Activated carbon is 100% alkaline and because it’s spinning with electrons the substance is highly electrical. Its negative ionic charge attracts positive ionic charges (of toxins and poisons) causing them to bind and takes them out of the body via the eliminative channel of the intestines.

Activated charcoal is an NHS-approved medication for flatulence, hyperacidity and indigestion, although it is not compatible (and sometimes dangerous) with many other medications.

Detox-wise, many dieticians have come out to rubbish active charcoal, especially in juices, as the substance removes nutritional qualities as well as toxins.

How you eat it: In all sorts of dishes, as well as bread, water, juice, mayonnaise and charcoal emulsions.

Where people are eating it: From Tokyo to Sydney, New York to London, activated charcoal is a trend that’s been around for the last 18 months, although it’s already a common ingredient in desserts in Asia.

Active charcoal as a health supplement was helped along its way when Gwyneth Paltrow’s magazine Goop named charcoal lemonade one of the “best juice cleanses”. Then, an unlikely contender, Burger King Japan, took activated charcoal mainstream when it launched its burger in a black bamboo charcoal bun, called Kuro Pearl, in September 2014. However, activated charcoal first appeared commercially in products sold by kooky cold-pressed juice companies in New York, California and London. It has since travelled to restaurants in LA and latterly Cumbria, in northern England. Yes, head chef Simon Rogan of L'Enclume supposedly cremates a mean onion ash (see Dish Spotlight below for more info).

Tastes like: Active charcoal tastes of nothing and has no aroma. It has a distinctly grainy or gritty texture, although homemade charcoal or ash flavour has a smoky and bitter flavour. Both versions are being used by chefs to create that barbecue taste, without barbecuing food; combining the texture and taste of barbecued food with the texture of slow or brief cooking. It is said to combine bitterness and umami with a stark savoury note.

Known dishes: Burger buns (Bull in a China Shop), ice cream, cocktails, macarons and dressings.

Chef fans: René Redzepi, Ferran Adrià, Tom Seller, Jamie Clinton and Simon Rogan.

Dish spotlight: Chef Simon Rogan’s ‘Ox in the Coal Oil’ dish at L'Enclume, Cumbria, features onion ashes from a whole burnt onion with onion oil, mixed with slow-cooked potatoes. For this, hot coals are left to marinate in oil for seven hours, before the oil is used to dress ox meat that is served raw.

Do it yourself: You can buy activated charcoal from health food shops or you can char your own fruit, veg or coconut husks. For example, dehydrate carrots and onions in the oven at 100oC for eight hours and then blast at 200oC until black. Blend into a powder. Sprinkle over soups or stews or, if you're daring, follow the Artesian bar's lead by adding sugar and salt and dusting the edge of a cocktail glass.

Other uses: Active charcoal is used in modern hospitals to counteract drug overdoses. It is also thought to help with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but no medical findings back this up. Carbon will greatly counteract flatulence and help to eradicate foul odours in the colon or intestinal tract. Carbon is also used in teeth whitening and plaque-removing products.

Give it a try:

…at Botanic Lab, which delivers charcoal juices to your door.
…in a meal at Shears Yard, Leeds.
…or in a drink, such as the ‘Dream Within A Dream’ cocktail (containing Pisco, Suze, guava juice, citrus, vegetable ash, salt, sugar and edible glitter) at the Artesian in London.

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