Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 7, 2017. It was updated June 7, 2018 to reflect the NYC Department of Health’s recent crackdown on charcoal-infused foods.
If you’ve taken a peek through Instagram recently, one thing is clear: Black food is everywhere. Perhaps a goth response to the ubiquity of unicorn lattes and rainbow bagels, dyeing foods a deep, inky black has become one of the year’s biggest food trends. Activated charcoal, the ingredient that creates this “super-black” hue, has made its way into coconut ash ice cream, detoxifying lemonades, pizza crusts, and boozy cocktails that are as black as your cold, dark soul.
Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon or coconut ash, has long been a staple in hospitals, where it is used to prevent poisons and lethal overdoses of drugs from being absorbed by the body. It’s a potent detoxifier, which has also helped activated charcoal attract an ardent following among the crunchy juice-cleanse types, who claim that the supplement (usually taken in pill form, though the powder can be mixed into a glass of water) can do everything from preventing hangovers to mitigating the side effects of food poisoning.
The idea of charcoal as a detoxifier isn’t going away anytime soon, but consumers are now more interested in charcoal-tinted ice cream and pizza because it makes for excellent Instagram fodder. The black ice cream from shops like Morgenstern’s in New York City and Los Angeles’ Little Damage have been posted to social media thousands of times, along with inspiring countless copycats at ice cream shops across the country. This time, the craze isn’t necessarily attributed to activated charcoal’s purported health benefits. Instead, the appeal is directly attributed to the fact that black-hued dishes are relatively rare and unique — and also happen to look really, really cool.
Still, as the trend has grown, a number of articles have raised concerns about whether or not activated charcoal is safe to consume. There’s been a little bit of fearmongering regarding the ingredient, like pieces at Self and BoingBoing that warn people to “definitely avoid” foods dyed black with activated charcoal because they’re “not safe.”
As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, between the natural health evangelists and complete skeptics. If consumed in excessive amounts, activated charcoal can cause some adverse health effects — but definitely it isn’t as “dangerous” as some might believe.
What is activated charcoal?
While technically made of the same material as the charcoal briquettes in your barbecue, activated charcoal is a decidedly different thing. Food-grade activated charcoal is most frequently produced by heating coconut shells to extremely high temperatures until they are carbonized, or completely burned up. The resulting ash is then processed with steam or hot air at equally high temperatures to produce a “microporous structure.”
This process dramatically increases the surface area of the charcoal, which partly explains why it is such a powerful detoxifier. “You can imagine activated charcoal as a sponge with its many tiny pores,” writes Discover Magazine’s Eunice Liu. “In fact, it is these little pores that endow the activated charcoal with its powerful adsorption properties,” referring to the process by which “atoms or molecules from a gas, liquid, or dissolved solid bind onto a surface.”
Before it hit mainstream food culture, activated charcoal was a popular ingredient for detox enthusiasts. Added to juice cleanses and cayenne pepper lemonades, the powdered charcoal has been touted by natural health advocates for its anti-aging benefits, as a way to lose weight and lower cholesterol, draw poisonous spider venom out of wounds, and minimize gastrointestinal distress. Long before that, even, it was used by Ayurvedic and Eastern medicine practitioners to whiten teeth and cleanse toxic mold spores from the body.
Why is there activated charcoal in my food?
Pretty much the only reason to add activated charcoal to ice cream or pizza crust is to produce that rich, Instagram-worthy black color. In terms of flavor, activated charcoal doesn’t really bring much to the mix, which is why Morgenstern’s added coconut and burnt honey vanilla flavors to its black ice cream when it was introduced last year. Little Damage offers a rotating selection of flavors, like almond, dyed with activated charcoal.
The inspiration for Little Damage’s black ice cream came after owner Jenny Damage noticed activated charcoal in a number of juice shops across Los Angeles, and found that it was a really good way to produce a pure, “super-black” color.
“Black is not an easy color to achieve when you’re mixing white ice cream with it,” Damage says. “I first saw it in charcoal lemonades, and I thought that was fun. The ingredient itself didn’t have too much of a taste, so it was a really good base for us to rotate our flavors, using that as our iconic color.”
At Prohibition Creamery in Austin, Texas, owner Laura Aidan first whipped up a batch of black ice cream as a Halloween special last year, but it’s been so popular that it’s made its way back to her constantly rotating menu a few times since. On a weekly basis, she gets requests from people via Instagram, Facebook, and email for the black ice cream, which was originally intended to just be a one-time-only offering.
When she decided to do a black ice cream, Aidan originally thought she might use squid ink, which is used to dye Italian pastas, or maybe black sesame seeds. Ultimately, though, activated charcoal was the best option. “Activated charcoal was totally the best fit. I was familiar with it as a health food supplement, but I had never put it in ice cream before,” Aidan says. “It adds just a slight bit of crunch, a really fine little crunch to the texture, but for the most part it was amazing how smoothly the charcoal mixed into the ice cream.”
What are the concerns?
Activated charcoal is really good at adsorption, or soaking up all the molecules in its path, but it isn’t so good at picking out what’s toxic and what isn’t. When a person consumes activated charcoal in ice cream, the charcoal sucks up the calcium, potassium, and other vitamins that would be found in the milk. This prevents the stomach lining from absorbing those nutrients, which means that the body eliminates them as waste alongside the charcoal. In extreme cases, this can result in malnutrition.
For people who take prescription medications every day, activated charcoal may pose an even bigger concern. “Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose,” gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, M.D. told Women’s Health. “But if you’re drinking it and you also are on any meds, even birth control pills, the charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs. So you risk having them become ineffective.” According to Drugs.com, that warning applies to more than 200 drugs, ranging from the ibuprofen you take to fend off a headache to albuterol, used to stop asthma attacks. As such, most companies that sell the product as a supplement recommend waiting at least two hours between taking activated charcoal and other prescription drugs.
It’s especially concerning for people who use hormonal contraceptives, as consuming activated charcoal within just a few hours of taking the pill can reduce its efficiency. In a January interview with Imbibe, Bittermens founder Avery Glasser joked that he was going to make an activated charcoal cocktail called “See Ya In Nine Months,” referring to its potential to produce an unplanned pregnancy. It was a nod to the ethical dilemma at hand: Should bartenders really be serving these drinks to unwitting patrons, and if they do, should they come with a warning?
Does it really offer any health benefits?
The science is somewhat mixed on the health benefits of activated charcoal, but as with most other “detox” products, most scientists are skeptical. There is little hard evidence that consuming activated charcoal actually does anything to detoxify the body or improve liver function, but that hasn’t stopped natural health enthusiasts from consuming it, much like turmeric lattes or juice cleanses. Perhaps not surprisingly, natural lifestyle maven Gwyneth Paltrow is an ardent activated charcoal proponent.
“Activated charcoal is amazing,” says Elissa Goodman, a Los Angeles-based holistic nutritionist who’s developed cleanse plans for celebrities like Kate Hudson. “I have used it for myself, my children use it, and we always travel with it. It’s powerful, potent stuff that is able to trap toxins and chemicals in the body and help flush them out so that they’re not absorbed. I think our bodies are really toxic.”
For Goodman and her now college-aged kids, activated charcoal is mostly used as a hangover cure. She also packs it when traveling to places where she’s concerned that the water may make her sick, and believes that it can be effective in helping remove toxic mold spores (which are prevalent in the laundry rooms and bathrooms of many homes and apartments) from the body. “We all have digestive issues, and charcoal can alleviate gas and bloating, which is usually produced by some kind of fermentation in our guts,” she says. “We inhale spores of toxic molds. In places where water is crappy, tap water can be toxic and have chemicals. A lot of people don’t have filtration systems in their homes, so it’s great to use.”
Still, despite Goodman’s obsession with eliminating toxins, she doesn’t see activated charcoal as the kind of thing that should be eaten every day. “Everything in moderation. We get onto these crazes and run with them, even if it’s potentially not that great for us in the long run,” she says. “I don’t think it’s good to eat or drink it all the time. When you’re feeling bad, it’s great to use. When you’re healthy and normal, you don’t need it.” Goodman also knows that activated charcoal can interfere with adsorption of medications and other supplements, which is why she recommends taking it first thing in the morning.
Should I eat it?
In small quantities, activated charcoal is perfectly safe to consume, even if the purported health benefits are scientifically dubious. In the black ice cream at Prohibition Creamery, only a few ounces (by weight) of activated charcoal go into an 18-gallon batch of ice cream, which means that each scoop only contains a tiny amount. But because it’s hard to judge exactly how and when your body will process the charcoal, it’s still a good idea to wait a few hours after taking prescription medications like birth control before eating that charcoal pizza crust.
“The amount that goes into each serving isn’t great enough to make a huge difference when you’re talking about ice cream,” says Damage. “You’d have to consume a huge amount. Of course, I don’t know every medicine each and every person is taking, so if you’re on medication, people should consult with their doctors before trying our ice cream.”
It’s also important to remember that activated charcoal isn’t the only common ingredient used in restaurants that can interfere with medications. Grapefruit juice is known to increase the absorption of some drugs, including statins used to regulate cholesterol, HIV protease inhibitors, and over-the-counter cough syrup — those who consume those medications are encouraged to avoid drinking grapefruit juice within two hours of downing their pills.
A natural compound called tyramine, found in aged cheeses, cured meats, and certain wines, can also be deadly for people using monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs, to treat depression and personality disorders. (Fun fact: In The Silence of the Lambs, when Anthony Hopkins, starring as diabolical cannibal Hannibal Lecter, tells FBI agent Clarice Starling that he ate a census worker’s liver with “fava beans and a nice Chianti,” that particular assortment of foods (all high in tyramine) provides a subtle clue that Lecter is off his medications. Otherwise, as Mental Floss notes, it’s a combination that would have otherwise killed him.)
Still, despite the fact that activated charcoal is harmless in small quantities, it’s probably not a good idea to eat (or drink) it every single day. Over time, activated charcoal will adsorb crucial nutrients away from the body, which could eventually lead to malnutrition. Kim Kardashian might keep her fridge stocked with activated charcoal lemonades, but regular consumption comes with some less-than-glamorous side effects, like constipation, dehydration, and some very metal black-tinted poop.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that consuming ice cream or pizza dyed black with activated charcoal every once in a while is going to result in any serious health complications. It might still be a good idea to treat this trendy ingredient much like the ice cream it is stirred into — as an occasional splurge instead of a diet staple.
So why did New York ban activated charcoal in food?
It would appear that adding activated charcoal to food has been against the rules all along. Eater NY reports that the city’s Department of Health has issued multiple “commissioned orders” to various restaurants over the past couple of years, which “compel restaurant operators to discard the product as it is considered adulterated food.”
But it’s only in the past couple of weeks that the Department of Health has actually been enforcing that rule, which they say comes directly from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. According to a Department of Health statement, restaurants and cafes in the city are prohibited from adding the ingredient to food and beverages because it is “prohibited by the FDA as a food additive or food coloring agent.” As such, inspectors from the Department of Health have forced spots like Morgenstern’s to dump batches of ice cream dyed black with charcoal when conducting their regular inspections.
Interestingly, though, the FDA claims that it has no regulatory guidelines that address how activated charcoal can be added to food, which would mean that the New York City Department of Health is being overzealous in banning coconut ash. The federal agency hasn’t given the ingredient approval, but it also hasn’t explicitly banned the ingredient, either. It exists in a sort of gray area, where food purveyors can add activated charcoal to a scoop of ice cream or bagel as long as they’ve consulted “qualified experts” to determine that their specific usage of the ingredient is safe. That process is largely regulated on the honor system, because companies are not required to notify the FDA of what they find out.
Should activated charcoal be banned in food?
If the approach is “better safe than sorry,” maybe. It’s difficult to predict how eating activated charcoal will impact each individual person, and ingesting too much could have significant implications. But perhaps the better solution is education. In many states, it’s not uncommon to see a sign noting that consuming raw or undercooked seafood can make people sick. Requiring restaurants to disclose the amount of activated charcoal in each scoop of ice cream, or note the potential health impacts, could head off the Department of Health’s concerns.