London’s latest wellness food fad explained – and debunked
Update 5/03/2017 – added clarification about the sourcing of Pizzicotto’s activated charcoal pizza flour and responses received, so far, from the companies covered
The public backlash against the pseudoscientific ‘clean eating’ and ‘wellness’ food fad in the wake of the BBC’s highly critical documentary is well under way. Even so, there are plenty of other, scientifically dubious eating trends that could take its place or ride on its coattails and join it in the same intellectually lightweight limelight. Activated charcoal in food is one of the latter.
Activated charcoal? What the heck is that?
Activated charcoal is a highly processed form of charcoal used by doctors to treat some cases of severe poisoning, but – crucially – only some and not others.
Put simply, activated charcoal works by binding itself to some organic substances, such as certain specific poisons, once you’ve ingested it. It is then expelled from your body along with the poisonous substance that you’re being treated for.
used by doctors to treat some cases of severe poisoning
When activated charcoal is used in medically potent quantities – 25-100g is the typical dose according to the US National Institutes of Health, potential side effects include diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain and constipation. It can also interact with other medications. That’s why its availability, and the length of time in which you should take it, is medically determined.
This kind of medical-grade activated charcoal is only available through a doctor, but people can also make it themselves. Activated charcoal is typically made from coal, peat or wood, but it can also be made from certain vegetable matter such as coconut husks.
potential side effects include diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain and constipation
Put simply, for the sake of brevity, this is usually done using one of either two processes. The first is physical activation where the source material is heated at very high temperatures and exposed to certain gases. The other is chemical activation, where certain chemicals are added to the source material during the heating process. This reduces the amount of heating time needed.
Sounds like serious stuff. Yet people are adding it to their food?
A couple of restaurants in London, and at least one food and drink company, are adding activated charcoal to their dishes and beverages. Pizzicotto, for example, is one of at least two pizza companies that have added activated charcoal to the flour used in some of their pizza doughs. According to a Pizzicotto spokesperson, approximately 1% of the flour used in a typical pizza (around 2-3g) is activated charcoal. This is far lower than the amount in a typical dosage of medical-grade activated charcoal.
Update 5/03/2017 – A spokesperson for Pizzicotto has clarified that the restaurant buys flour premixed with activated charcoal – they don’t mix the flour and charcoal themselves. They have so far not responded to queries about who supplies their premixed flour.
Press London, a self-proclaimed health drinks specialist, sells 330ml bottles of lemonade with added activated charcoal. Unless you order in bulk online, they are otherwise only available from bars and restaurants run by a company called Darwin & Wallace.
Press London’s spokesperson didn’t respond my queries for more information, but approximately 0.05% of a bottle’s contents is activated charcoal according to details provided to The Guardian (that’s less than 0.2ml according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations – minuscule, in other words, compared to a typical dose of medical-grade activated charcoal).
Well that sounds harmless enough. Why are they adding activated charcoal to pizza and lemonade, though?
This is where it gets interesting, with both companies mentioned above using carefully couched language. Pizzicotto’s menu and website doesn’t state why they use activated charcoal in their pizzas. When I asked their spokesperson, they claimed that activated charcoal has ‘many health benefits’ and that it ‘is credited with reducing bloating, and it’s a good general detoxifyer as it helps your body to make the most out of the good ingredients you eat. People also use activated charcoal to help with hangovers, to clean teeth, and to add to shampoo to clean hair throroughly [sic].’
Press London’s online store only states that its activated charcoal lemonade is ‘refreshing, energising & alkalising’. A press release contains a somewhat more specific claim about activated charcoal in general, stating it is ‘a great agent for detoxing, assisting with the cleansing and healing process of the body.’
The language of both companies is generally quite careful here, avoiding direct claims that their products will provide these health benefits. Instead they note the purported health benefits of activated charcoal and note that their products contain activated charcoal. The implied cause and effect seems clear though – eat/drink these activated charcoal products and you’ll get the health benefits.
Well, I’ll try anything once. Who doesn’t want to be detoxed or refreshed?
I hate to break it to you, but these health claims are almost certainly nonsense. For a start, ‘detoxing’ is a scientifically meaningless term while ‘alkalising’ and the associated alkalai diet is a misleading and potentially dangerous misreading of a biological concept and yet is bandied around frequently by ‘wellness’ and ‘clean eating’ proponents.
Thomas Sanders is Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London. I put the companies’ statements, as well as the stated amounts of activated charcoal in Pizzicotto’s pizzas and Press London’s lemonade, to him and asked for his informed opinion (I did not provide him with the company names). His reaction was unequivocal.
‘the pizza company is adulterating food’
‘My view is that the pizza company is adulterating food. They are adding activated charcoal as a food additive to perform a perceived function. Activated charcoal is not a permitted food additive. They are also making an unauthorised health claim under the EC Health Claims regulation.’
On the latter two points, Professor Sanders is referring to the list of approved food additives and the register of verified nutrition and health claims in food, both maintained by the European Food Safety Authority. Activated charcoal doesn’t appear on either list, as far as I can tell.
Professor Sanders was also blunt in his informed opinion on the activated charcoal lemonade, lamenting the ‘misleading and unauthorised health claim’ which he characterised as ‘a load of quackery’.
‘a load of quackery’
What do Pizzicotto and Press London have to say to that?
I’ve asked both companies, through their spokespersons, for their reactions. I’ll update this article if I get any responses.
Update 5/03/2017 – a Pizzicotto spokesperson has, thus far, not commented on the scientific commentary and evidence in this article. Instead, they claim that the activated charcoal flour they use ‘is widely used across Italy, and several places in the UK too’.
A Press London spokesperson has acknowledged the publication of this article, but has so far not responded to the scientific commentary and evidence in this article.
But surely there must be something to the health claims about activated charcoal? Beyond treating poisonings, I mean.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) did look into the scientific studies on activated charcoal back in 2011 to evaluate two specific claims: whether activated charcoal can reduce ‘excessive intestinal gas accumulation’ (i.e. flatulence) and bloating.
Based on the scientific studies before it, the EFSA concluded that ‘a cause and effect relationship has not been established between consumption of activated charcoal and reduction of bloating’. As you’ll remember from above, reducing bloating was one of the claims Pizzicotto’s spokesperson attributed to the activated charcoal used in some of their pizzas.
The EFSA did find that activated charcoal could reduce flatulence, but to achieve this you would have to consume 1g of activated charcoal at least 30 minutes before a meal with 1g afterwards. This is distinct from consuming activated charcoal directly in your food.
Bear in mind that this finding isn’t shared by the US National Institutes of Health, which maintains that activated charcoal hasn’t been shown to be effective in reducing flatulence.
the scientific crux as to why the above health claims for activated charcoal are nonsense
Even so, this neatly brings us to the scientific crux as to why the above health claims for activated charcoal are nonsense. As Professor Sanders explains, ‘activated charcoal only remains activated when it has not had the opportunity to bind with small molecules. If you stick it in a pizza it will become inactivated because it will bind with the numerous small molecules present including the nutrients’.
Well, that seems pretty damning. Why the heck are restaurants and food and drink companies making these unsubstantiated claims?
I can only speculate on that. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that someone somewhere noticed that activated charcoal is used to treat some severe poisonings. Either through a misunderstanding of the science or through a deliberate deception, they decided that this was close enough to the debunked concept of ‘detoxing’ to start adding it to food and drink in an attempt to boost sales. This tactic has apparently caught on and been adopted by the more gormless of London’s trend-chasing food companies.
Given the scientific evidence and expertise as it currently exists, there’s zero chance that consuming food and drink with added activated charcoal will give you the claimed health benefits. That’s just not how activated charcoal works.
If you’re still tempted, Professor Sanders recommends against regularly consuming even small amounts of activated charcoal as it’s likely to contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. There is limited evidence linking some types of these naturally occurring carbon-hydrogen compounds to cancer, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
As Professor Sanders succinctly puts it, ‘in my view it is stupid and irresponsible to add charcoal to food’.
‘in my view it is stupid and irresponsible to add charcoal to food’