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My Polish grandfather in early 1950's was sent by communist regime to a gulag. People were starving there and malnourishment was common, so they came up with idea of burning some kind of trees and eating the ashes.

Do you know what kind of tree can be devoured like this? And why ashes? How does this method work?

I'm asking here, because it is strictly a survival thing.

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This is not a survival technique.

The way to determine how many calories is in a particular food item is to measure the amount of heat energy emitted when an item is burned. Anything burned to ash is basically calorie free as far as food value goes.

Ash is composed of whatever was unable to vaporize into smoke in a fire. The hotter the fire, the more material burns. Wood ash has a lot of calcium carbonate and potash (potassium salts) (~35-55%). Traces of metals in the wood will be concentrated in the ash, because it takes a very hot fire to vaporize them. Wood ash can be used to fertilize plants, but not people. It probably wouldn't poison you, and you might get a few trace elements (or some heavy metal poisoning, if the ashes were concentrating some of that).

This is the sort of desperate measure you can try when you are starving to death, and are willing to try anything, even stuff that rationally, you know won't help. I'd expect it to stave off starvation about as well as eating dirt: there might be some questionable, miniscule benefit, but don't plan on it as a technique to live longer.

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  • And what do you think about comments to my post? They seem rational about neutralizing other eaten stuff and relieving pain. Is comment about alcalizing stomach acid meaningful? Do I want to alcalize my stomach when starving?
    – user46147
    May 5 '15 at 15:10
  • I've got no idea if making your stomach more alkaline would hurt or not. For that level of detail, ask someone with a medical background. As for the use of charcoal to neutralize poisons, I'd suggest asking another question. The short version is that active charcoal works by preventing the body from absorbing substances, so not good to prevent starvation. Again, someone with a medical background would be better able to answer.
    – Karen
    May 5 '15 at 15:41
  • 1
    Apparently dirt isn't calorie free. Hurray internet!
    – Pepi
    May 7 '15 at 9:10
  • I think there is a difference between the calorific value of something and how much of that is usable by the human body @Pepi ...I think!
    – user2766
    May 7 '15 at 15:45
  • Furthermore, ash and coal help fighting diarrhea and certain forms of poisoning. Aside of that, the minerals are concentrated. While I wholeheartedly agree that survival is first and foremost a calory game, calories aren't the only thing one needs. May 7 '15 at 20:58
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There are many references available on the internet regarding consumption of ash from untreated wood. The practice apparently dates into prehistory.

However, as a few people have pointed out, the intent was not to use the ash as a food but as a food modifier.

My own research shows four main uses:

  1. as a leavening agent, both in Europe and in North America prior to the European invasion.

  2. as a detoxifier. Some Native Americans used ash to remove tannins from acorns. The potassium binds with the tannins, resulting in fewer washings.

  3. As a pickling adjunct in Europe. The lye formed by mixing ash and water helps break down the organic tissue, promoting better absorption of pickling agents. The same mechanism was adopted to increase the efficiency of the hide-tanning process.

  4. To increase the bio-availability of B-vitamins in Native American mais.

In conclusion: yes, humans have been using wood ashes as a food additive for thousands of years throughout the world but, no, they have never eaten the ash as a food in itself.

Finally, an invitation to reason. As Karen points out, ash is the product of burning wood at temperatures high enough to break most organic chemical bonds. Scientists have analysed all kinds of wood ashes - the stuff used to have significant commercial value, after all. There is nothing in wood ash that can serve as a source of human calories. We may not like that conclusion, but our likes and dislikes do not alter the facts. Thanks.

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When cooking meat you dont need to stick it over the fire on a stick. It goes in the hot coals and always has white ash or charcoal attached; the charcoal is pulled off before eating.

Black char coal absorbs poison in the case of food poisoning.

Tumbs active component is calcium which nutralizes acid. Ash has an abundance of calcium

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