Activated Charcoal Now Active in India

Activated charcoal, which has become popular in several countries around the globe, is now making inroads in India’s food & beverage sector. It is being increasingly used as a key ingredient across restaurants and bars, in several cities. 

Charcoal pav bhaji, smoked salmon with avocado mousse in a charcoal bagel are just a couple of dishes with activated charcoal which are proving popular in Mumbai. This ebon creation, which pairs beautifully with woody Scotch and gives a sleek look to cocktails, is the latest ingredient that Chefs are playing around with. The reason behind the increasing popularity of activated charcoal-infused dishes is mainly due to their popularly perceived health benefits and also because of their uncommon exotic appearance. 

Ashok Malkani attempts to find the causes behind increasing number of people opting for activated charcoal dishes in India’s food service industry, the process for preparing activated charcoal infused dishes and the pros and cons of this food service trend.

While ‘black is beautiful’ may be a favourite phrase with the fashionistas, the foodies have now come up with their own concept of ‘black is healthy.’ Yes, there is a new food trend doing the rounds for quite some time around the globe. If you are familiar with the social media and have a penchant for keeping up with the latest food & beverage trends then you would definitely have heard about the charcoal infused food. 

When Burger King introduced their signature Black Burgers – that is what we in India called them – a few years back, there were not very many takers for this as it resembled a burger made with burnt bun. However, food with activated charcoal is now considered to be a healthy option.    
Rajesh Radhakrishnan, Director of F&B, Radisson Blu Resort Goa Cavelossim Beach disclosed, “Activated charcoal dishes became very popular in western countries by 2015. In India, the trend started in 2017. At Radisson Goa, we haven’t adapted  this trend yet but will introduce dishes with activated charcoal in the coming months as part of the new concept.”

“The concept of activated charcoal was introduced in India around three to four years back.  The use of activated charcoal has gained popularity in India’s food & beverage industry. There are chances though that some customers may get repelled by the use of activated charcoal, but majority of customers enjoy this change and seek innovation. Ingredients such as activated charcoal are used more for presentations, as people often eat with their eyes,” pointed out Neeraj Rawoot, Executive Chef at Sofitel Mumbai BKC.

“Activated charcoal dishes have always been there but now they have been promoted in such a way that people can exactly know what they are. Also nowadays people want to try new things,” declared Prasad Jagdale, Chef de Partie (Continental), Courtyard by Marriott Pune Chakan.

“Today, consumers are aware of Black Food due to various avenues on social media platforms like Instagram.  Activated charcoal is increasingly being used as a key ingredient across restaurants and bars. At our hotel, we have conducted special events where we have prepared various dishes using activated charcoal. Breakfast charcoal croissant has been one of our key highlights. Some of our dishes which have delighted the taste buds are charcoal choux buns with Peking duck, charcoal tortilla with green tomato salsa, French Lamb rack with charcoal pumpkin puree & fondant,” elaborated Gaurav Malhotra, Executive Chef at Novotel Hyderabad Convention Centre and Hyderabad International Convention Centre.

Mohammed Eliyaz, Chef de Cuisine, JW Marriott Hotel Bengaluru is also of a similar opinion. “Since long ‘activated charcoal’ has been used as an ingredient by many Chefs who hold prime place to set trends and bring about an ingredient revolution in cooking. It started growing in India’s  food service business since 2014 and the experiments related to the same were made along with food,” he stated. 

“In my outlet it becomes a curiosity to try the matt finished ‘black chicken’ and it is a success to savour the chicken cooked with a special technique; holding on all the nutritional value,” he added.

Srikanth Reddy, Chef De Cuisine, The Westin Hyderabad Mindspace said, “Activated charcoal dishes have gained popularity in India during the recent years. They have been discovered by Chefs and been brought into focus mainly because of their ability to dispose toxins from the body and reduce cholesterol levels. Activated charcoal has also gained fame because it adds an innovative and premium element to dishes.”

“Activated charcoal has gained popularity in India’s food service industry since 2014 when Burger King launched an all black Chicken Burger. We can say that in India, Chefs started experimenting with the ingredient from 2016 onwards. At Novotel Pune, we do not have any activated charcoal dish on the menu as yet. I would like to see how the demand for the ingredient comes in the near future and would decide accordingly,” explained Siddhartha Sankar Sarmah, Executive Sous Chef at Novotel Pune Nagar Road. 

Composition and Popularity of Activated Charcoal 

All said and done, the use of activated charcoal in India’s food service industry has grown over the last couple of years. This writer’s first experience of this ingredient in the F&B segment was in 2017, at Street Nights (a culture and food event), during the Dubai Food Festival in Mumbai, when he had an opportunity to taste charcoal lemonade. It was tasty and the experience was definitely ‘different’! 

But what exactly is activated charcoal, how is it created and what are its benefits are questions that are often asked by the laymen.  

Sanket Thakur, F&B Manager, The Resort Madh-Marve Mumbai disclosed, “Activated carbon is carbon produced from carbonaceous source materials such as bamboo wood, coconut husk, willow peat, wood, coir, lignite, coal, and petroleum pitch. One of the processes by which it can be produced is physical activation. The source material is developed into activated carbons using hot gases... And your activated charcoal gets ready!” 

“Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon or coconut ash, has long been a staple in hospitals, where it is used to prevent poisons and lethal overdoses of drugs from being absorbed by the body. It is a potent detoxifier, which has also helped activated charcoal attract an ardent following among the crunchy juice-cleanse types, who claim that the supplement (usually taken in pill form, though the powder can be mixed into a glass of water) can do everything from preventing hangovers to mitigating the side effects of food poisoning,” he articulated.

“There are various reasons for people asking for activated charcoal infused dishes. They can be because activated charcoal infused dishes are good detoxifiers and facilitate one to relax, and also because activated charcoal infused preparations prevent hangovers and mitigate the side effects of food poisoning,” he continued. 

“To make activated carbon, you first need to understand two basic methods of activation — steam activation and chemical activation. Chemical activation should not be confused with acid-washed or chemical impregnation. Activated carbon is carbon produced from carbonaceous source materials such as bamboo, coconut husk, willow peat, wood, coir, lignite, coal, and petroleum pitch. Steam-activation is primarily used for coconut charcoal and coal whereas chemical activation produces the same end result — at a much increased internal surface area — but uses a chemical solution.  This process is sometimes preferred because it requires less heat and time,” said Gopal Jha, Executive Chef, Grand Mercure Bangalore.

“The trend of activated charcoal is great because it is natural, odourless and very healthy. It removes toxins from the body when taken in the right quantity,” Gopal affirmed. 
“Activated charcoal is basically the byproduct formed after burning the organic matter from coconut shells, woods or other plant materials,” expressed Rajinder Sareen, Executive Sous Chef, Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway.

Activated charcoal is endowed with a lot of health benefits. For instance, it is good for detoxification and maintaining cholesterol level.  The Indian restaurants have started adapting the ingredient in their dishes, keeping the health conscious people in mind. 

“Food-grade activated charcoal is produced by heating coconut shells to extremely high temperatures until they are carbonised or completely burned up. The resulting ash is then processed with steam or hot air at equally high temperatures to produce a microporous structure.  This process dramatically increases the surface area of the charcoal, which partly explains why it is such a powerful detoxifier,” explained Gaurav.

“There is a significant difference between charcoal and coal: the former is edible, while the latter is not. Charcoal has been marketed today as an ingredient beneficial for detox. It has been found that there are health benefits from charcoal, if consumed in a controlled portion. It is a potent detoxifier, but honestly how we can prove this fact is still questionable,” Gaurav disclosed. 

“Charcoal has been used to imbibe food with a smoky flavour over the years. Now we add it in our food because of its detoxifying properties.  Molecular gastronomy has made it a complete component with fancy presentations. That could explain its growing popularity in the food service industry,” Gaurav averred.

“Superheating natural sources of carbon, such as wood, produces activated charcoal,” declared Prasad.

“Activated charcoal is mainly made using materials such as coal, wood or other such materials. It becomes ‘activated charcoal’ when high temperatures combine with a gas or activating agent to expand its surface area,” disclosed Neeraj.

Rajesh defines activated charcoal as “Carbon produced from carbonaceous source materials such as bamboo, coconut husk, willow peat, wood, coir, lignite, coal, and petroleum pitch. The source material is developed into activated charcoal, using activated oxygen and other activating agents. Activated charcoal adsorbs chemicals and may bind to both toxins and vital nutrients such as vitamins.” 

“Over the past years, activated charcoal has been increasingly capturing the imagination of the detox crowd due to its health benefit. It is a new fad now.  Charcoal is supposed to be considered as a good absorbent. However, in real life, deep cleansing of body through activated charcoal is on superficial level. I feel it is an online hype. Human body has organs like kidney and liver that are capable of ejecting toxins,” Rajesh cautioned. 

“Activated charcoal is commercially produced from coconut husk in a high temperature environment, and it is activated with rose water in our case,’ Mohammed Eliyaz asserted. 
Srikanth states that activated charcoal can be produced by “heating charcoal on gas until it becomes dry and porous.” “Activated charcoal is the by-product, which is formed after burning coconut shells, wood and other plant materials. As an ingredient it has been approved of by the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) & Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The food experts say that one should have it in a controlled manner to avoid any health issues,” Srikanth observed. 

“Activated charcoal is typically made from bamboo or coconut shell. It gives food an earthy, smoky taste and the black colouring gives the food an exotic, fashionable appearance,” Siddhartha expressed.

“The health benefits of charcoal are still in the realm of popular belief, and they are not yet scientifically verified. Though nobody has come out with a proper research paper on its health benefits but nobody has refuted the health benefits of charcoal too,” informed Siddhartha.

Black is Beautiful… and Tasty?

Like most food & beverage trends of this century, use of activated charcoal in food was also initially popularised by the west. Activated charcoal in cold-pressed juices is liked by celebrities and charcoal latte is a rage in the US. The reason for the growth in popularity of activated charcoal dishes in India has not only been due to their popularly perceived health benefits but also due to their uncommon appearance. 

“With the number of people eating out nowadays, especially millennials, the need for creative ventures and creative food has increased tremendously.  The reason charcoal infused dishes have gained popularity is due to the fact that people treat food as fashion. As the trends keep changing, a constant need for change in food presentation and consumption is developed. To satisfy this growing demand, restaurants have started innovating and introducing new concepts to attract customers,” explained Neeraj.

“The reason charcoal is cool is probably because of its look. For example, if one sees a black burger or a black chip or a black garnish on a colour plate, the intrigue increases. As a community, we have always seen our food to be colourful, and when a black product is placed on the colour plate, the curiosity increases with reference to the ingredients present on the plate,” he elaborated further. 
“Earlier, Chefs used squid ink to make their food products black, but the ink had a fishy smell to it which was unacceptable by vegetarians, hence the popularity of charcoal increased. In the world of cooking, there aren’t many black colour products apart from Nori sheets, but even they aren’t typically black. Hence when one mixes charcoal to any dish to make the same black, the same is considered cool, especially by the millennials eating out,” Neeraj expressed. 
“The ebon colour does not drive the diners away from charcoal dishes. Human beings get bored by the same food trends so every palate needs to have different taste with texture and colour too,” claimed Sanket.

Besides, the common concept that activated charcoal infused dishes detract from the taste of the food is not correct. In fact, infusion of activated charcoal makes difference in texture and aroma in a particular dish.

“There is an ongoing debate among scientists regarding the pros and cons of using charcoal in food.  As one is aware, charcoal is a very good laxative, and hence is utilised for cleansing the digestive system. As a drug, the use of charcoal has always been monitored and prescribed by doctors,” Neeraj affirmed. 

“Eating activated charcoal infused food is going to be a huge trend in India’s food service industry during 2018-19. It is catching up fast with the youth. Due to its adsorption qualities and health benefits of removing toxins from the body, people are trying out new activated charcoal infused dishes. Charcoal infused dishes also look appealing,” averred Rajesh. 

“What has added to the popularity of charcoal infusion in the food is the visual impact it gives! Added to it is the curiosity to know about it and try. People who know about it make sure to add in their daily diet,” pointed out  Mohammed Eliyaz.

“The smoky taste and dark coloured appearance of activated charcoal is fascinating to people; it also imparts a premium finish to the food.,” added Srikanth.

“Gourmands are enthusiastic about trying the ingredient and its gaining popularity could also be associated with its health benefits,” he maintained.

“People nowadays love exploring new dishes and cuisines. One finds that guests consuming charcoal infused dishes are posting their experience in the social media, thus popularising the trend further,” observed Siddhartha.

“After fashion, the business of food is embracing black as the luxury colour these days. Charcoal appam, carbon sushi, squid-ink risotto and ash ice-cream black are some of the creations in this direction,” gushed Gopal. 

“Unless used properly, charcoal infusion might get the dish totally wrong. One also needs to acquire a taste for it by consuming activated charcoal infused dishes often,” pointed out Gopal.

Suitable Pairing 

Charcoal’s intense pigmentation and subtle smoky flavour have induced a great many bartenders to come up with an impressive array of trendy cocktails. While these activated charcoal cocktails are delightful; the claim that they are ‘hangover-free’ doesn’t seem to be true.

More recently, juice brands have been infusing activated charcoal to their lemonade and other drinks. As far as pairing of activated charcoal with dishes is concerned, there are several dishes in which it is added.  

Sanket names a few of such dishes. They are: 

Coconut Charcoal Ice-Cream – Basically in New York creative Chefs started making activated charcoal ice-creams and named them as above.  Though they are dark, they are yummy in taste. 
Charcoal Blackberry Macrons – It is well-known that the macron is probably the cutest dessert on the market. Add some activated charcoal and shimmery gold dust to that and you have got a major cookie glo-up. These little beauties are from Macaroon in Houston, Texas.

Charcoal Lemon Blueberry Donuts — Bite into a taste of Southern comfort food when you grab one of these fruity-tangy donuts from Atlanta. The tart blueberries and fresh lemon keep the donuts flavourful, while the activated charcoal provides contrast against those adorable rainbow sprinkles.
“The dishes with which charcoal pairs well are: Breads & BBQ, smoked food, Indian curries and Indian breads, Japanese naked fire cooking and so on,” revealed Prasad.

Rajesh too names some of the popular charcoal items. “Charcoal ice-creams/gelatos, charred coconut smoothies, fruity charcoal doughnuts, blackberry vanilla charcoal macaroons are some of the activated charcoal infused products,” he elaborated. 

“It pairs well with meats, pasta, mocktails, frozen desserts, and sauces,” said Mohammed Eliyaz.
“It pairs well with ice-creams, pizza, pasta, macaroon, burger, breads such as pita, focaccia, baguette, etc.,” viewed Srikanth.

“Infusing activated charcoal to cocktails and other drinks does not alter the original taste of the drink. Some of the cocktails made with activated charcoal include Midnight Beach Rumtini, Tequila Moonrise, Dark Side Shandy, Death in Paradise, Ebony Ink, Death Before Dinner, Black Friday Detox, Black Tie White Noise, etc.,” he added.

“Among the most popular dishes that activated charcoal pairs with these days are ice-cream, pancakes, waffles, cookies, various other desserts, burger and even a butter chicken,” conveyed Siddhartha.

“We can also use activated charcoal in drinks like lemonade, milkshakes and even tea, cocktails and mocktails,” he added further.

“Activated charcoal can pair with drinks, bakery products and marinades. Smoothies and juices can also have addition of charcoal,” said Gopal.

 “It pairs best with baked items like breads, sauces, desserts and cakes, to name a few,” opined Rajinder. 

“Activated charcoal has become very popular in combination with ice-creams, burger buns, choux buns, cocktails, breads, dim sums and surprisingly even with appams. We, at Novotel Hyderabad Convention Center and Hyderabad International Convention Centre have received a good response from travellers and food lovers for our experiments on this front,” proffered Gaurav.

Exploring Health Benefits 

But while many in the food service industry believe that activated charcoal is good for health and it detoxifies the body, there are reservations about health claims of activated charcoal. More study is needed in this direction is the opinion of a large number of people. 

Authorities have only approved activated charcoal for the emergency treatment of overdose or poisonings. But due to its powerful toxin-clearing properties, some advocates have proposed activated charcoal as a treatment for an ever-growing list of conditions.

“In my thought anything excess is not good for health; it is just the way how you balance it in your meal,” declared Prasad.

“It is safe if activated charcoal is consumed once in a while. However, if you are on prescription medication, you would be well advised to avoid or at the very least, consume it with caution, because activated charcoal may make that medication less effective,” pointed out Rajesh.
Mohammed Eliyaz, however, differs. “I thoroughly recommend it as it is safe for consumption. Some of the benefits of activated charcoal infused food are that it helps in blood purification, eases breathing, helps in giving glow to the skin, and also facilitates to balance cholesterol. Further, it can play its role as a kidney purifier and helps improve vision,” he emphatically declared. 
“The consumption of charcoal powder is beneficial to the human body as per my knowledge,” disclosed Srikanth.

“I believe trying one or two charcoal activated dishes is no harm from a reputed Chef or a restaurant but it should not be worshiped blindly as a healer of all your ills,” opined Siddhartha.
“Activated charcoal is considered harmless, but there are a few things to consider if you are interested in trying it. Don’t take activated charcoal with prescription medications and if you are suffering from constipation, as charcoal will exacerbate the issue. It can also cause black stools. The type of raw materials used to make your activated charcoal also matters, with charcoal derived from coconut shells generally labelled the highest quality,” Gopal cautioned. 

“If we continue to treat the planet as we have been doing presently, the amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, and chemicals in our bodies will continue to rise through environmental exposure. Activated charcoal makes the case that we have a solution to at least one aspect of that. If exposure cannot be prevented, then regularly cleansing the body of heavy metals can prevent the kind of build-up that leads to scarier and more serious health concerns,” he expressed.

“Since the activated charcoal is the byproduct after burning coconut shells, woods or other plant materials, it sounds dangerous. But, the byproducts from the coconut shells are harmless as they are different compared to eating burnt food,” averred Ravinder. 

“In small quantities, activated charcoal is perfectly safe to consume, even if the health benefits are scientifically doubtful,” affirmed Gaurav.

“One of the theories say that activated charcoal is really good at absorption or soaking up all the molecules in its path, but it isn’t so good at picking out what is toxic and what isn’t. When a person consumes activated charcoal in ice-cream, the charcoal sucks up the calcium, potassium, and other vitamins that would be found in the milk. This prevents the stomach lining from absorbing those nutrients, which means that the body eliminates them as waste along with charcoal. In extreme cases, this can result in malnutrition. So yes, every good thing has an adverse effect on the body if consumed in large quantities,” Gaurav elaborated further. 

Summing up one may say that it is trendy to try activated charcoal but do not consume it being under the belief that it is beneficial for your health, till further studies have revealed its pros and cons. Till then relish it for its difference and flavour! 

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