Trendy health ingredients give restaurants' menus an extra kick

Activated charcoal, turmeric and more trendy health ingredients, coming to a restaurant near you.

Sandlot's Fire on the Mountain isn't the best-selling drink on the menu at the new waterfront hangout in Harbor Point. But it might be the healthiest cocktail on the list.

With ingredients including turmeric, yogurt and hot peppers, the blended beverage provides a refreshing kick while incorporating elements that boost gut health, fight inflammation and combat depression.


Turmeric, activated charcoal and spirulina are some of the trendiest superfoods, spices and supplements of the year. And they're making appearances in Baltimore's drinks and dishes.

Just as the orange hue of turmeric makes the Fire on the Mountain pop, so too does charcoal infused in the Dark Knight cocktail at Minnow, another newcomer on Baltimore's restaurant scene. The drink turns heads at the South Baltimore seafood spot, co-owner and general manager Jake Lefenfeld said.

Activated charcoal (which has oxygen added to increase its surface area and increase its efficacy) has been heralded for its detoxifying properties, and as Lefenfeld was looking for different ways to add color to his drinks, he began experimenting with food-grade charcoal.

"I kind of got on that kick before, when I was looking for ingredients that had a purpose rather than just creating a color," he said. "I'm not really into using food coloring. ... I wanted there to be a purpose."

With the proper serving size, charcoal can improve digestion and bind to toxins, preventing them from being absorbed into the blood stream. But the same properties that make it a strong detoxifying agent can also prevent the body from fully absorbing drugs and nutrients, meaning it can make certain medications ineffective and reduce the nutrients people get from food.

Chris D'Adamo, research director at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Integrative Medicine, suggests taking activated charcoal several hours after taking medication or eating, but said it isn't harmful in small doses in food and drinks.

There's about half a teaspoon of charcoal in the Dark Knight. It's mixed with Ransom Old Tom gin, Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. tonic, agave and a splash of soda, and garnished with a bright lemon peel that stands out against the chalky black drink. Lefenfeld wanted the cocktail to "stand up to a little bit of a gritty charcoal taste."

"It doesn't taste anything [like] the way it looks," he said.

Krystal Mack was careful when she began using the substance in baked goods and drinks at her bakery, Blk // Sugar, at R. House.

She researched ideal doses of charcoal in food while developing her activated charcoal brownie recipe, and spent time experimenting to strike the right balance between healthy and scrumptious. She uses about a teaspoon per batch of 10 brownies, which are large enough that they're not meant to be eaten in one sitting.

"I find that if I try to increase more actual charcoal, it makes it not delicious," Mack said. "It absorbs the moisture. … The more activated charcoal you add, not only is it harmful to the customer but it's also not a delicious brownie."

Born from a broken heart, her first activated charcoal brownie recipe was crafted for Valentine's Day and paired with a charcoal cocktail at R. Bar in the Remington food hall.

"My whole process was thinking just like when people are heartbroken they turn to sweets and indulge in that way," she said. "If you're trying to get over a lost love that you have, it can kind of detoxify your body of unwanted feelings."

Because charcoal and other trendy ingredients are present in small doses at bars and restaurants, Paul Thomas, a scientific consultant for the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health , said they don't make the foods and drinks "healthier" for those who indulge.


"In the broader sense of consuming these foods with these added ingredients, do they help to enhance health or make the food or drink — like if it's a dessert or a very sweet sugary drink — you know, a little less bad for you? No. Almost certainly not," said Thomas, who is also a registered dietitian nutritionist.

They are an effective marketing tool, though.

"Sometimes these ingredients are added to give kind of like a health halo to the product to people who are kind of susceptible to those kind of claims or promotions, and it's also sometimes a way to charge more for the product," Thomas said.

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Lefenfeld said he uses ingredients like charcoal in part to appeal to health-conscious customers, while prompting curiosity from others.

For customers, seeing the word "charcoal" on a menu can be more off-putting than the dark coloring of the items themselves. Some customers are more familiar with charcoal in an emergency room setting because it can be used to detox patients in hospitals.

Matthew Akman, a 32-year-old attorney, said he had never tried food with charcoal in it before sipping the Dark Knight at Minnow, and was not aware of its reputation as a detoxifying substance. Akman tried the drink after Lefenfeld recommended it, and said he would go back to Minnow for the cocktail alone.

"I was kind of blown away by the creativity aspect of it," he said. "It almost tastes more of like a summery drink, and it looks like something someone on 'Game of Thrones' would drink."

Some additives, like turmeric, are more effective than others. D'Adamo said the yellow-orange spice can have anti-inflammatory benefits in small amounts. It works best in foods because it is fat-soluble, and is even more potent paired with black pepper.

"You don't need massive doses to get some benefits," he said.

Turmeric is among the spices and superfoods restaurants in Spike Gjerde’s Foodshed group have been incorporating in its foods and drinks. Andrew Nichols, now bar manager at Sandlot, previously worked at Woodberry Kitchen, which is also owned by Gjerde’s group, and said the restaurant group began using turmeric more often in the winter because it’s high in vitamin D, which can help combat seasonal depression.

"We added a golden milk latte onto the Woodberry menu, and turmeric kind of spread into the cocktail program from there," he said.

The lattes, first popularized on the West Coast, combine turmeric paste with milk and coffee or tea. Charmington’s, on the border of Remington and Charles Village, also offers a golden milk latte, and Blk // Sugar served the beverage during the winter.

Heading into warmer months, Nichols developed the Fire on the Mountain cocktail at Sandlot using turmeric primarily for its bright color.

"I wanted to create a savory, spicy smoothie that had booze in it," Nichols said.

Named for a Grateful Dead song, the blended drink incorporates Baltimore Whiskey Co. Shot Tower Gin, plain yogurt, turmeric vinegar, turmeric powder, honey, "fire bitters" (made with four types of spicy peppers, black pepper and coffee) and chili pepper jam.

Opposite the color wheel from turmeric’s sunny tinge sits the deep blue-green of spirulina, another flashy, if not eyebrow-raising, ingredient making inroads in Baltimore eateries. The superfood, a type of algae, comes powdered and is often used in smoothies and juices. The plant has gained traction for its richness in micro-nutrients, including chlorophyll and carotenoids, which give it its intense hue.

It's also the ingredient that gives mermaid toast and other mythical Instagram foods their blue-green tint.

Spirulina is another supplement that can have benefits in small amounts, D’Adamo said.

One World Cafe in Tuscany-Canterbury, Liquid Earth in Fells Point and Zia’s Cafe in Towson serve spirulina as a smoothie additive. And Plantbar, which has a location in Belvedere Square Market and is opening a second in Harbor Point, also offers it as an additive in juices and smoothies.

Mack said she even tried her hand at spirulina pie but didn’t end up selling it at her bakery.

Popular supplements change rapidly, and D’Adamo said he sees the trends in such ingredients driven from two sides: human needs and research.

Despite eye rolls and "mutterings of being hipster," Mack said she hopes the presence of healthy supplements in her foods opens her customers' minds and encourages them to do their own research.

"We make our stuff for anyone and they don't even really know it yet," Mack said. "We're there to try to open everyone's minds a little bit more when it comes to food and exploring food options, and starting a larger conversation."