Article extracted from Asian Geographic Issue 02/2020 (141)
The story of charcoal cannot be nailed down to any civilisation, continent or century. A myriad tales, however, point to several firsts of this carbonaceous material in man’s voluminous history book. It probably began when the cold north wind swept across the deserts of Western Asia, and the season for using natural wood charcoal made an appearance.
The history of charcoal comes in the wake of the origins of fire – evidence of cooked food is found from 1.9 million years ago, although fire was probably not used in a controlled fashion until 400,000 years ago. Substantiation becomes widespread around 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, suggesting regular use from this time.
Charcoal is usually produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood, sugar, bone char, or other substances in the absence of oxygen. The resulting soft, brittle, lightweight, black, porous material resembles coal and is 50–95 percent carbon, with the remainder consisting of volatile chemicals and ash.
Red colobus monkeys in Africa have been observed eating charcoal for the purposes of self-medication. Their leafy diets contain high levels of cyanide, which may lead to indigestion. So they learned to consume charcoal, which absorbs the cyanide and relieves indigestion. This knowledge about supplementing their diet is transmitted from mother to infant.
Curing the Modern Man: Charcoal as Medicine
The medicinal properties of activated charcoal have been known for a very long time. Both Hippocrates (400 BC) and Pliny the Elder (AD 50) wrote about its use in treating a variety of ailments, including vertigo, anthrax and absorbing the odours from rotting wounds. In hospitals today, it is used to treat overdose and poisoning, as it can absorb certain toxins in the gut before they enter the bloodstream. Vets also prescribe it to dogs that have eaten substances that are toxic to them, like chocolate.
Activated charcoal is not the same substance as that found in the charcoal used in barbeques; the manufacture of activated charcoal makes it extremely absorbent, allowing it to bind to molecules, ions, or atoms. Making activated charcoal involves heating carbon-rich materials, such as wood, coconut shells or sawdust, to very high temperatures. This activation process strips the charcoal of previously absorbed molecules and frees up bonding sites again. This process also reduces the size of the pores in the charcoal and makes more holes in each molecule, thereby increasing its overall surface area. As a result, one teaspoon of activated charcoal has more surface area than a football field.
Due to its powerful toxin-clearing properties, some advocates have proposed activated charcoal as a treatment for various conditions. These include kidney health, intestinal gas, diarrhoea, skin and dental care, and also to filter water.
A Hipster’s Fantasy: Charcoal in Food
While the medicinal benefits of activated charcoal are recognised on a greater scale, the claim that the use of activated charcoal on a regular basis will detoxify and cleanse the body as well as boost one’s energy and brighten the skin may be chalked up to pseudoscience. However, this hasn’t stopped the trend of “black food” that has swept the world. It gives food an earthy, smoky taste and the black colouring gives the food an exotic, fashionable appearance.
Activated charcoal, as used in cleanses or detoxes, became popular around 2014 after it was brought to mainstream attention by actress and self-styled wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow, where she described it to be “one of the best juice cleanses”. Proponents of charcoal detoxes claim that it cleanses the body by aiding in the removal of excess toxins that the body is unable to get rid of by itself, and also provides anti-ageing benefits, increases energy, brightens skin, decreases wind and bloating, and aids in weight loss.
As we live in an age of obsession when it comes to nutrition, health and the pursuit of “detoxing” the body, we spend staggering amounts of money on alternative medicines and “fad foods”, with little proof of their efficacy. However, there is no nutritional composition data available for activated charcoal so it’s unknown whether it has any nutritional value.
Some scientists have been highly critical of the use of activated charcoal in the wellness industry. For them, these fads found in magazines, and sold in pharmacies, juice bars, and health food stores are make-believe medicine. As such, the use of the term “toxin” in this context is deemed meaningless, for there are no toxins named because there’s no evidence that these treatments do anything at all.
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