While with some high school friends this past summer, I visited a trendy, zen-themed ice cream parlor in downtown Bangkok. Looking at the menu, I was instantly drawn to their featured item—a cone of pitch-black soft serve. As I wondered what kind of awesome flavor this could be, the waitress standing behind me pleasantly chirped, "We recommend our charcoal ice cream, it's tasty and very healthy too!"
This whacked-out food item is actually not some alien creation. Charcoal (specifically bamboo charcoal, as the menu matter-of-factly describes) was reported to be used in the household as far back as the ancient Ming Dynasty.1 However, this notion is still relevant in contemporary Western society. In fact, you might have heard the term charcoal discussed in a medical context as activated charcoal. Due to its high porosity and mineral content, activated charcoal can bind to certain toxins, helping your body get rid of unwanted substances.2 Although it is ineffective in removing ethanol from the body, college students may still recognize this as a go-to for whenever they find themselves a little tipsier than they would have liked...
Despite its medical benefits, activated charcoal is hardly a detox miracle. In research studies, activated carbon is limited to acute poisonings in the gastrointestinal system only and not as a potential nutritional supplement.3 Furthermore, the amount of actual charcoal present in the ice cream is minuscule compared to the amount you would take as a medicine for poisoning. In fact, the charcoal additive is more or less for aesthetics, much like food coloring on everyday food items. Nevertheless, it’s proven to be a great marketing strategy—people from all over the city flock to this little ice cream shop to taste this black-colored ice cream, coming out with a much lighter wallet (for such novelties are appropriately overpriced) and ironically, slightly unhealthier bodies. After all, the sugar and calories in the ice cream certainly outweigh any detox by the charcoal!
Of course, all of this cost-benefit analysis wasn’t going through my mind that day. I was just as excited as anybody else to try this never-before-seen invention. As it turns out, it tasted quite delicious (as most artisan ice creams should) although the taste itself was practically indistinguishable from high-quality vanilla ice cream. Nevertheless, I went in looking for a delicious treat, and that’s exactly what I got.
To savor this treat as well as others on your screen, here’s the website. You’ll need to fly halfway around the world to try the real thing though! =)
James Siriwongsup is a sophomore from McMurtry College at Rice University.
1. Salim, M. Black is Back: The Secrets of Bamboo Charcoal. http://melianasalim.com/2015/07/20/black-is-back-the-secrets-of-bamboo-charcoal/ (accessed 10/12/2015), part of Meliana Salim’s Blog
2. Activated Charcoal. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/activated-charcoal-uses-risks (accessed 10/12/2015), part of WebMD
3. Gavura, S. Activated charcoal: The latest detox fad in an obsessive food culture. https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/activated-charcoal-the-latest-detox-fad-in-an-obsessive-food-culture/ (accessed 10/12/2015), part of Science-Based Medicine
4. Mickler, J.; Sherbondy, J. What is Activated Carbon? http://www.tigg.com/what-is-activated-carbon.html (accessed 10/12/2015), part of Tig