For the past couple of years, activated charcoal has benefited from the kind of good publicity that follows several thousand semi-related hashtags. The supplement gone from being a poison-control remedy—Control + Z in capsule form for anyone who accidentally ate a decorative soap—to every beauty blogger's favourite tooth whitener to a GOOP approved facial cleanser to a must-have food and drink ingredient.
The latest restaurant to surrender to the trend is Bidwell, a Washington DC restaurant that prides itself on its 'responsibly sourced' entrees. In this case, 'responsibly sourced' seems to mean that it uses only the finest over-the-counter charcoal supplements in its pizza crust, a confusingly grey-hued pie that is piled with "béchamel sauce, mozzarella, bacon, kale, and topneck clams."
"Charcoal is a natural alkaline, and it's a purifying element," chef John Mooney told The Washingtonian. "People who eat a lot of pizza with tomato and cured meats, they experience heartburn, but the crust actually neutralises that. That's not some crazy stuff—that's science, man."
It may not actually be science—more on that in a sec—but it is bordering on becoming inescapable. The charcoal-enhanced pizza crust was first introduced at least two years ago; in 2014, Molini Spagadoro, a Perugia, Italy based dough-maker, brought its own blackened crust to the annual Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, rationalising it in the same way that Mooney did. And, in April, British supermarket chain Waitrose announced that it would soon sell its own charcoal-crust pizza. "[It] sounds like a pretty tasty pizza, if you ignore the idea of having soot in your mouth," Metro wrote, possibly misunderstanding the concept.
Even before Waitrose puts that pizza in mainstream freezers, activated charcoal has been slowly gaining speed, waiting for the right moment to jump the detoxifying shark. There are now charcoal-enhanced smoothies, chai teas, cocktails and even charcoal-infused tequila to smother any optimism that might've been served with that margarita.
Seattle chef Eric Johnson has been serving charcoal-blackened waffles at his Stateside restaurant for the past two years, after he was served a similar breakfast in Hong Kong. "We did have someone keep trying to send it back because they thought it was burnt," he told the Seattle Times. "They, of course, Yelped about this. Classic."
Last month, the Little Damage ice cream shop in Los Angeles became Instagram's new favourite with "Black Roses," a charcoal-blackened soft serve that looks like Marilyn Manson's heart has been artfully squeezed into a coordinating black waffle cone.
But as sweet as that ice cream and clam-smothered pizza slices look online, medical professionals have warned against it, largely because of activated charcoal's most accepted use: absorbing medications and chemicals in the body, reducing the effectiveness of even the good ones that we have actual prescriptions for. You know, like anti-depressants and birth control pills. Avery Glasser, a bartender and co-founder of Bittermens cocktail bitters, confirmed with his doctor that having a charcoal cocktail could reduce the effectiveness of prescription medication. "When a bartender pooh-poohed the idea that it could be problematic, 'I was like, 'No? Great. I'm going to make a cocktail called the See Ya in Nine Months,'" he told Imbibe magazine. (Some consumers of Little Damage's charcoal-laced ice cream have also complained on Yelp about its... digestive effects.)
Other medical pros have dismissed any assertions other than the idea that the supplement works as a poison-control remedy.
"Charcoal is used in the medical setting for very specific purposes, such as when an individual has been poisoned. But there is no evidence that we need to be consuming this regularly," Tim Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, told MUNCHIES in 2015. "People are always looking for a magical formula to health and nutrition. But when has one of these fads ever, over the long term, turned out the be correct? Eat a sensible, balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Forget the gimmicks."
But hey, it's a fact that charcoal pizza looks dope AF on Instagram, so what else really matters?