Depending where you are in the country right now, it’s either relatively balmy or absolutely scorching outside. With Memorial Day – the unofficial kickoff of the summer pool party season – behind us, our attention turns to tried and true ways of beating the heat in the coming months. From cranking up the AC to a dip in the river, every option is on the table when the mercury starts to rise. And arguably one of the most fun and delicious tactics for keeping cool is the strategic consumption of ice cream. Because what better signifies the onset of summer than enjoying a cone, melting and sticky, on the beach? Or diving into hand-packed pints at tree-shaded picnics. Or even riding the back roads with the top down, a soft serve in hand. Let’s face it, ice-cream could even be the Official Food of Summer. And gone are the days of a uninspired choice of strawberry, vanilla, or chocolate – our 21st century frosty concoction caters to every budget and taste. From the simple pleasure of the mass market to the indulgence of the artisanal pint, ice-cream can be an everyday choice or a gourmet treat. And now, or so the claim goes, it can also be healthy…
It is said that there is one true thing in food: trends will come and go and the culinary landscape thrives in a state of perpetual flux. And in recent months we have seen this to be especially true with a splurge in – some say ‘creative,’ others insist on ‘ridiculous’ – consumables, from the widely touted Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino to the Instagram-crashing rainbow grilled cheese sandwich. Certainly 2017 seems to be the Year of the Incredible Edible. But as everyone with a high school science education knows, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And as we move into the second half of the year, a darkness is looming. Banished are the unicorn hues and in their place gather the somber shadows of the Darkening Times. Gothic-inspired fare is now taking the stage and offers, for some, a welcome relief from the culinary equivalent of My Little Pony. Gone are the glitzy rainbow sparkles of pinks, blues, and purples and in their place we are seeing foods of such an inky blackness that even light cannot escape them. Well, almost. Previously – we can’t really say ‘traditionally’ given how new this trend is – made with toasted black sesame seeds, squid ink, or Peruvian purple corn, black food is enjoying quite the run in social media with Instagrammers and Pinterest pinners showcasing the bewildering variety of dark-as-night options. From jet-black burger buns to ebony hot dogs, charcoal lattes to rib-sticking porridge Stygian food is possibly the Next Big Thing. And, with the arrival of soaring temperatures, another obsidian-shaded consumable has just hit the streets.
In New York City, that perpetual locus of foodie innovation, Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream – a ‘new American ice cream parlor, focused on serving texture-driven small-batch ice creams with renewed attention to flavor and palate’ – has created a radically different frozen confection: the Black Coconut Ash.(1) Eschewing additives, preservatives, and indeed artificial anythings, products at the downtown Manhattan eatery represent founder Nicholas Morgenstern’s love affaire with this ‘quintessential American indulgence.’(2) The dessert is made of coconut milk, coconut cream, and coconut flakes with two tablespoons of activated coconut charcoal per packed pint. Quickly becoming an essential ingredient for everything from pizza to cocktails to toothpaste, the pitch blackness of the charcoal is said not to detract from the rich creaminess of the base either in flavor or texture – although, having not had the opportunity to sample it ourselves, we can neither confirm nor deny this.
But what exactly is activated charcoal and wherein lies its appeal?
Remember those fire pits we all enjoyed on chilly evenings at summer camp? The ones we built in a circle of stones to roast marshmallows on sticks and watch the sparks fly up into the onyx night sky. Well, what’s left in those fire pits is, in essence, activated charcoal, also known as active carbon, amorphous carbon, bone black, and lamp black. It is the residual carbon from the slow, smoldering burn that desiccates wood, allowing its volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to evaporate. When prepared in commercial processes, charcoal is considered ‘activated’ when it oxidizes with steam or air at high temperatures, forming pores that act as a sponge to dramatically increase its adsorption capacity. In fact, the difference in adsorption capacity is marked with commercial food-grade carbon products ranging between 300 and 2000m2/g, and some as high at 5000m2/g. Once activated the carbon acts via adsorption, mechanical filtration, ion exchange, and surface oxidation.(3)
And this product is not only made from wood: activated charcoal may come from sources as varied as bamboo, peat, animal bone char (erm, yeuwww), olive pits, and – the new culinary darling – coconut. The shells are cleaned of their meat and external fiber and burned at between 575 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 4 hours until they have been reduced to ash. In the next step, the ash is soaked in either calcium chloride or zinc chloride 25% solution for 24 hours. Once washed and rinsed with distilled water, the ash then bakes in a warm oven before being milled to a fine powder. When intended for use in food or medicines the amorphous carbon receives the designation USP, or U. S. Pharmacopoeia – the certification required to meet federal standards for food safety. To be labeled as ‘food grade,’ activated charcoal regardless of source must be ‘very fine, black, odorless, and tasteless […] free from gritty matter, with less than 4% ash residue, and acid-washed to remove virtually all of the remaining inorganic constituents.’(4)
So why would we use burned wood (bamboo/coconut/et cetera) in food or pharmaceuticals? As a compound, it has one very significant property: electrostatic binding. Used as a first line of defense in orally-induced poisoning, activated carbon with its negative charge has the ability to bind to and adsorb positively charged ions in toxins, thereby preventing them from being absorbed within the gastrointestinal tract. It is effective for poisoning by drugs such as phenobarbital and carbamazepine – anti-seizure drugs that are also used to treat neuralgia, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder – but not for compounds that are corrosive, acidic, strongly alkaline, or which have a petroleum base. In an emergency scenario, activated charcoal is administered either orally or via a hemoperfusion system – the latter being especially useful for patients with hepatic failure or some autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, the substance is also used in non-emergency situations for patients who have undergone colostomies or ileostomies as a ‘natural’ way to deodorize fecal matter, as a treatment for cholestasis during pregnancy, and also to lower cholesterol levels.
But outside of the medical environment, what is the role of industrially-processed activated charcoal?
A natural detoxifier, active carbon is a popular remedy for bloating and gas and, albeit anecdotally, as a hangover preventative and has made its way into all kinds of consumables from fruity health beverages to decidedly adult ones. Juice Generations’ cold-pressed juices, for instance, boast two teaspoons per bottle of the ingredient in a 16 fluid ounce bottle.(5) And then there are the ‘less healthful’ drinks: high-end cocktail and juice bars such as The Punchbowl in Los Angeles which serves a Witches Brew – mixing pear cider, clove, cinnamon, anise, and noni that ‘binds to pharmaceuticals and pesticides and kicks them out.’(6) Moreover, according to an article in the Huffington Post, it is also used as an addition in some breads, pasta, smoothies, and even rice.(7)
The jury, however, is still out as to the alleged health benefits of this self-prescribed ‘detoxifier,’ as Fiona Tuck and Pip Reed, nutritionists quoted in the HuffPo article, note:
‘“Charcoal’s effects are limited to the gastrointestinal tract — it is not capable to extract toxins from the rest of your body […] Activated charcoal will trap not only poisons but many nutrients, particularly minerals that it comes into contact with.”’(8)
And Reed goes on to say that ‘“claims that activated charcoal can cleanse your system, boost your health and make you live longer are not backed by clinical research. Even proposing that it improves the digestive system cannot be stated as a fact due to the limited research that has been done on the substance.”’(9)
Since the majority of the raw activated charcoal powder is produced outside of the U.S. – in countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and even China – the exact supply chain can be somewhat murky.
So it may not be the health panacea some would have us believe. And then there is the question of purity. Since the majority of the raw activated charcoal powder is produced outside of the U.S. – in countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and even China – the exact supply chain can be somewhat murky. And where the supply and distribution systems are not transparent, the question must necessarily arise: what degree of confidence can we have regarding the quality of the product? Given that Nicholas Morgenstern, maker of the Coconut Black Ash ice-cream attests that ‘food-grade coconut ash is difficult to find,’ is it simply a matter of food manufacturers taking whatever they can get?(10) Not at all. In order to conform to USDA guidelines, active carbon must have a specific baseline purity level which changes depending on its physical source (bone char or bamboo?), the exact manufacturing process used, its formulation, and whether it is from a virgin or regenerated source.(11) In addition, different grades of activated charcoal are used for different purposes, meeting varying purity and solubility standards. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, Jacobi Carbons, a European company based in Kalmar, Sweden that creates high grade carbon products, boasts wholly-owned manufacturing facilities in 10 countries that conform to ‘internationally recognized standards, such as ISO, ANSM, FCC, EuPharm and USPharm.’(12) Additionally, Jacobi’s laboratories and production processes are all standardized via a centrally managed IT platform and their supply chain is secured by means of a network of custom warehouses and selected distribution partners.
In addition, in terms of current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs), products sourced from coconut shells offer lower attrition, higher meso- and macroporosity, less dust, and a more efficient end product than their wood/animal bone/bamboo/et cetera alternatives since coconut shells are intrinsically harder and more microporous, attributes that make them denser than wood-/coal-based options. And with an eye to product sustainability and economy, coconut shells are definitely seen as being a material of the future.
But, as the heat index rises, let’s return for a moment to the delectable image of coconut ice-cream just one more time. Given the still contested health benefits of consuming activated charcoal as a supplement (outside of a medically-prescribed need), should we assume the current interest is just a quirky blip or could it be the next Big Thing? Apart from the excitement of sampling a novel taste sensation, fans seem to enjoy the creepy (albeit temporary) black mouth staining from eating the sweet treat, and demand has spread way beyond the confines of the Big Apple. In the sleepy county in which we are based – Berkshire, Massachusetts – a veritable dessert revolution seems to be taking place. Local frozen yoghurt manufacturer Ayelada recently unveiled its own recipe for Coconut Ash fro-yo. Described by the creator, Jim Cervone, as ‘very goth, very cool, very Ayelada’, this confection is whipped up from a mix of milk, sugar, yoghurt, yoghurt powder, and fruit.(13) And it spawned a spin-off too – a soft-serve twist of Coconut Ash with Green Tea Matcha, a dark double helix swirl that Cervone says gained an ‘ecstatic’ public response.
So perhaps, like Cervone and Morgenstern, we need set aside our trepidation and be more adventurous in catching up with, for example, Asian ice-cream aficionados. In Japan, ice-cream has long been offered in what we would see as non-standard flavors. From red bean to miso, basil leaf to wasabi, the Japanese scoop ranges far beyond the confines of vanilla or chocolate. Bold eaters in Tokyo opt for their own version of black ice-cream, which incorporates squid ink for a fishy ocean flavor. Seaweed is another popular ingredient, with kombu, nori, or wakame added to a kelp-based mix. In Okinawa, famed for the longevity of its citizens, bitter melon is a favorite, while the flavor of yuba – the skin that forms on soymilk as it becomes tofu – is preferred in Kyoto.(14) And as for the soy sauce flavored scoop – said to have a ‘caramel-like flavor when paired with sweet vanilla ice cream’ – well, perhaps we’ll stick with plain old mint-choc chip after all…
Love ice-cream? Are you strictly vanilla or do you relish a twist? And are you concerned by the questions raised in the use of activated charcoal in food products? We’d love to hear from you!