Charcoal has been rapidly gaining popularity as an ingredient in everything from burgers and hotdogs, to toothpaste and makeup. All sorts of health claims are also being made to warrant its use. But when it comes to food, are there actually any benefits to adding charcoal to your meal?

It is worth clarifying what is meant when people talk about charcoal as an ingredient. Activated charcoal used in food is different to the charcoal that is used as a fuel, these charcoal briquettes often contain agricultural waste and other toxins, so are unfit for consumption.

Also known as activated carbon, activated charcoal is carbon with added oxygen that increases its porosity. It is used as a detoxifier in medical applications and in water filtration. Most activated charcoal in food applications is made of burnt coconut shells, as well as other plant-based material.

In addition, adding activated charcoal to a meal is very different to simply burning or charring food in an oven. Many burnt foods can result in a higher level of acrylamide, which according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a by-product usually found in low levels when a food is cooked. The FSA states that there has been some evidence to suggest that acrylamide is carcinogenic, with laboratory tests demonstrating a direct link to cancer in animal trials. It is therefore advised to keep levels to a minimum.

Charcoal: detox or detriment?

Health commentators such as Goop magazine have hailed activated charcoal-based products such as charcoal lemonade as a great way to cleanse. Examples include the Black Magic: Charcoal Elixir from Lulitonix, which is claimed to be a purification elixir.

Lulitonix state that activated charcoal is “a great agent for detox, cleansing and assisting the healing process of the body, preventing / helping hangovers, and helping with intestinal issues.”

Similar assertions have been made about the popular charcoal latte, which uses activated charcoal as a core ingredient.

Women’s lifestyle publication Brit + Co said: “Activated charcoal can have major benefits in your beauty routine, but it’s also super detoxing if you consume it".

"The NHS recommends individuals speak to their doctor before opting for charcoal supplements or a charcoal-based diet."

However, health professionals and nutritionists are increasingly concerned with claims surrounding the activated charcoal trend. Rather than being a detox ingredient that can be used to cleanse the digestive system, activated charcoal  may offer few or no health benefits, with the potential of actively harming the consumer.

Nutrition scientist from the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) Sarah Coe says: “Activated charcoal is most commonly used in hospitals in the treatment of poisoning or drug overdose.”

It is also prescribed as a remedy for flatulence, as the porous carbon absorbs gas in the digestive system.

Sarah adds: “The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has approved the use of a health claim for this benefit (1g at least 30 minutes before a meal and 1g after the meal), there is no evidence to suggest that activated charcoal supplements, or foods or drinks with added activated charcoal such as charcoal lattes, could have any other benefit to health”.

NHS Choices states that charcoal has the potential to absorb medications individuals are currently taking, making them less effective. The BNF states there is evidence to suggest activated charcoal could bind to nutrients in the digestive system, such as vitamins (though only limited scientific research has been carried out in this area).

The NHS recommends individuals speak to their doctor before opting for charcoal supplements, or a charcoal-based diet. Sarah explains: “Whilst recommended doses to treat poisoning or overdose in hospitals are known, it is not known how much activated charcoal might be harmful to take.”

If individuals are searching for a detox effect, the BNF’s stance is not to turn to any one specific ingredient or miracle cure at all. It said: “Foods, drinks, or supplements that are suggested to help detox the body are unnecessary; a healthy, balanced diet will help support the healthy maintenance and function of the organs that are responsible for removing toxins and harmful products from the body, such as the kidneys and the liver.”

A sceptical consumer-base

The colourful food and drink trend has been around for a few years now. Many see the move towards black foods, usually as a result of activated charcoal being used as a core ingredient, as a follow-on from the rainbow (or unicorn) food craze last year, which included a rainbow bagel and Starbucks’ unicorn Frappuccino.

A recent report from GlobalData Consumer titled ‘Surprisingly Colorful Food and Drinks’ attempted to establish why it is that consumers are so attracted to visually striking foods. Report author innovation insights director Thomas Vierhile concluded that colour provides a strong visual cue as to the perceived flavour of a food and drink and using a surprising colour that differs from the perceived norm for a product, such as Ikea Japan’s black ninja hot dogs, builds curiosity and appetite appeal.

However, a recent content wire publication from GlobalData Consumer indicated that despite the social media buzz around activated charcoal, consumers are sceptical around its inclusion in their food. GlobalData’s 2017 Q1 global consumer survey indicating that only 17% of individuals believe their health will be positively impacted by charcoal as an ingredient in food and drinks, while close to 40% are of the opinion that their health will be harmed. So while consumers may well enjoy looking at and sharing images of charcoal-coloured foods, it appears as though the majority remain sceptical rather than rushing to stores for a purchase.