Is charcoal the new black?

Callan Boys
The charcoal bun is appearing in burger joints from Sydney to Tokyo.
The charcoal bun is appearing in burger joints from Sydney to Tokyo. 

The world is going charcoal mad.

The tasting menu at the two-hatted Biota restaurant in Bowral starts with clams served under a cover of samphire and shards of the black stuff. Nora cafe in Melbourne is selling charcoal tarts, and burger joints from Sydney to Tokyo are whacking meat between buns the colour of Darth Vader's cape collection.

All this was already weird enough when I heard that the health set are mixing charcoal powder in water and downing it with their morning toast in an effort to rid the body of toxins.

What is going on here? Why are there people paying money to eat and drink the dregs of a campfire? Charcoal can't taste good, let alone be safe to eat, right? I grew up believing that eating burnt toast was a sure-fire way to get cancer.

"We use activated charcoal so it's not carcinogenic," says Biota chef James Viles. Charcoal becomes "activated" through a process combining high temperatures and the addition of oxygen to carbon resulting in a porous dust. Viles mixes the charcoal with water, olive oil, and amaranth flour, rolls it out, pops it in the oven, and shatters the end result over some bivalve molluscs.

"About fifteen years ago, activated charcoal started being sold in organic stores for its health benefits, probably started by someone in Nimbin," says Viles. "We don't use it for its health benefits but because we want that dish to mimic the dark sand shoreline where the clams are from."

I've eaten the dish. It's delicious. But I'm damned if I could taste much flavour in charcoal.

"Once it's been heated to 600 degrees and it's activated charcoal, it has nothing left. You can taste that it's charcoal, sure, but there's no flavour profile like the smoke you get when you're smoking with different types of wood."

Sarin Rojanametin​ from Nora uses charcoal in his tart bases for health and texture, as well as for its striking aesthetic.

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"In Asia, charcoal has been used in medicine and food for centuries," he says. "We use it not only because it ties back to our Thai culture but because it gives us a point of difference. Not only is it black and intrigue, it creates this flakey, layered tart shell that you can't really find anywhere else. It's almost like puff pastry, or a croissant."

Rojanametin said customers were "freaked out" when the black tart first came on market in early 2014 but it quickly became popular once people experienced the texture.

Charcoal is perhaps most popular in the health market.  

Vladia Cobrdova is the chief operating officer and "wellness ambassador" for natural-food chain Aboutlife. She says she has noticed an increase in activated charcoal sales over the last 12 months.

"Activated charcoal is an ancient way to cleanse the system," she says. "It is the most absorbent material to get rid of toxins and impurities from the body."

How does one consume this elixir, then?

"It can be as easy as one tablespoon of charcoal per glass of water," she says. "Stir very well and drink – it actually does not have any taste despite its black colour. And make sure you drink plenty of water afterwards to flush the toxins out."

Accredited practising dietitian Nicole Dynan, however, says there is little evidence on the effects of activated or non-activated charcoal on the human body.

"Activated charcoal is used in medical emergency situations to treat certain cases of poisoning and drug overdoses," she says. "Activated charcoal is able to bind to gases in the body, and evidence indicates that taking it may help with this. However, a large number of alternative products containing natural enzymes are currently available on the market to do this job. I would use it only under medical supervision and as a second line treatment after other things have failed".

For anyone keen to start charcoaling their own food at home, Dynan also says that while burnt food may have fewer calories it also contains a lot of very toxic materials created by excessive heat. And it doesn't taste that great.