Activated Charcoal: Healthy or Harmful?

Activated charcoal is a form of carbon that, on a molecular level, works a lot like a tiny sponge, drawing everything around it into its microscopic pores. It’s been used in a variety of ways over the years, including in water filters, fertilizers, and medical applications. Most recently, though, it’s become known for giving food a perfectly Instagrammable pitch-black color.

The Unicorn Antidote

A flickering flame of curiosity surrounding eye-catching concoctions was blown into a full social media bonfire over five days in April. That’s when the famed Unicorn Frappuccino from Starbucks left Instagrammers scrambling for photos and baristas scrubbing neon-pink stains off their hands. The short span of availability created an immediate demand for the drink, driven in large part by the brightly colored photos that flooded social media – 180,000 photos, all of one drink.

As if in response to the blindingly bright colors, soon after the unicorn Frappuccino went away, darker colors began showing up on menus. Again, the unique creations were stoked into a craze through social media. Despite the threat of pigeonholing itself, Starbucks got in on the newest color fad with its Midnight Mint Mocha Frappuccino, made with dark cocoa to achieve an almost-black shade of brown. About the same time, a pitch-black ice cream went viral, sparking the next trend.

Charcoal in Food Products

While the striking color of black ice cream may have propelled activated charcoal to new heights, it’s not a newcomer on the food scene by any means. Doctors have long used activated charcoal as a medicine in poisoning or overdose cases, which led many to believe that it could be used as part of a daily diet intended to “cleanse” the body. The health food community has been using charcoal in juices and smoothies for several years, though doctors are skeptical about the health claims that accompany these products.

When activated charcoal hit the mainstream, it first showed up in beauty products like face masks and teeth whiteners. Beauty bloggers claimed the products whitened teeth and brightened complexions, though medical professionals were again not on board. From there, the black powder made the jump to food, which comes with some potential complications.

Charcoal Complications

As charcoal experiences its moment in the spotlight, the ingredient has spread from ice cream to burgers, pizza, cocktails, and waffles. Restaurants and bars worked quickly to get in on the trend, but there has been some pushback – as it turns out, the claim that charcoal removes “toxins” from your body is only half true.

Charcoal is not absorbed into the body; rather, it passes straight through the digestive system. It may soak up some problematic elements in your stomach or intestines, but it’s not going to help “detoxify” your body of anything that’s already been absorbed. Additionally, the charcoal has no way of telling the good from bad, so it will absorb beneficial. There’s also the possibility of it absorbing active ingredients from medications you’ve taken recently, leading to petitions encouraging purveyors of charcoal foods to add warning labels to their products. Considering there are 243 drugs the substance is known to interact with, that may not be overkill.

While most dishes that make use of charcoal don’t have enough to actually cause problems with medications, it is certainly possible to ingest enough in a recipe to cause problems. For example, both this ice cream recipe and this waffle recipe call for 14-cup of activated charcoal powder, which is enough to cause concern if the ice cream is eaten within a few hours of an important medication.

The Bottom Line

The concern over possible interference with medication doesn’t seem to be extinguishing the activated charcoal trend. That means that, for restaurants looking to bolster their bottom lines, it’s hard to resist partaking in a trend that can bring in new customers. In this case, the question becomes one of risk.

Enough medical professionals have spoken out with concern about these charcoal-infused recipes interfering with birth control, heart medications, and antidepressants that it’s difficult to dismiss those concerns as over the top. On the flip side, charcoal has been used in recipes for some time now with no direct evidence of any ill effects. There have been no lawsuits or claims from customers that their charcoal ice cream interfered with their medications or made them sick. With that in mind, it is up to each business owner to decide if he or she will choose to offer charcoal variations of products – though including a warning about potential interactions on the menu might not be a bad idea.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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