Why you should stay away from trendy activated-charcoal black foods

Kevin Farrell

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There’s no denying that pitch black foods are an inviting trend, increasingly available the world over. Curiosities in their own right, black foods have served as something of an Instagram-worthy counter punch to the Lisa Frankification of smoothie bars, bakeries and breakfast cereals that have leaned deep into the unicorn food trend. These black foods are usually made by adding activated charcoal to a recipe. As exciting as black foods may look, should we really be eating charcoal?


Activated charcoal, which overwhelms the otherwise usual color a host product would take, forces its ironic worldview onto novelties like ice cream, burgers and candies. It does this because that’s what activated charcoal is created to do. Charcoal is formed by burning organic matter – things like coconut shells, stalks of bamboo, peat moss or even wood – until it is largely devoid of impurities and water.

Activated charcoal undergoes a second process, in which the matter is exposed to various gases at temperatures high enough to change the way the final product behaves. Activated charcoal becomes hungry in a sense, eager to bind with nearly anything it comes into contact with. This behavior has made it a natural fit for the beauty industry in recent years, as activated charcoal masks and cleansers remove from your skin anything unsavory that they come into contact with.

In the same way activated charcoal binds with the unwelcome dirt, oil and bacteria in your skin, when it comes to the inside of a healthy adult’s digestive system, activated charcoal will instead bind with the nutrients in the food that you’re meant to be digesting.

Dr. Angie Sadeghi, a board certified Gastroenterologist and Internist, says consuming activated charcoal when healthy is pointless. “In my opinion it seems counter-productive to even eat activated charcoal with food. Activated charcoal is used for detox purposes because it will bind to medications and toxins in the body – but it will also bind to nutrients in food. It is recommended when using activated charcoal for an overdose or detox to take it on an empty stomach, therefore putting it in food makes no sense other than to be a fun coloring or health gimmick.”

Activated charcoal can leech critical medications you’ve ingested before your body has had the chance to properly absorb them. “I would say that it is safe to assume it would interfere with almost any medication,” says Dr. Sadeghi, “including birth control.”

It’s this heavy-handed greediness that makes activated charcoal a powerful tool that doctors prescribe to patients who aren’t healthy. When used properly, activated charcoal can help put a hard stop to cases of food poisoning or drug and alcohol overdoses, absorbing the harmful toxins, chemicals or bacteria wreaking havoc within your body.

There’s some very real truth at the core of its reputation as a detox magic wand. But unattended charcoal tends to linger inside of our bodies, hardening within our digestive tracts. Any company extolling the virtues of black foods as natural detoxes is wrong on two counts. For starters, activated charcoal is hardly natural. You can’t just pluck a briquette from a tree. And secondly, activated charcoal is more likely to steal precious nutrients from your body, and then camp out within your small intestine, than it is to help cleanse you of unwanted toxins. Doctors prescribing the stuff often follow it up with a round of laxatives to then expel the charcoal from a patient’s body. It’s that second part, the need for a laxative follow-up, that so often goes missing in black food small print.

Many companies hawking activated charcoal foods and supplements advertise their charcoal as “food-grade,” which sounds safe enough. But activated charcoal is not currently a product regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As we’ve learned all too often before, food labels and certifications are more often than not just marketing speak.

All of this is to say that if you want to post a black food thirst trap to Instagram, by all means go for it. But you’re better off tossing the food in the garbage afterward than you are putting it inside of your body. “If taken properly, it could help with digestion.” says Dr. Sadeghi. “If taken in a food regularly, it could cause digestive issues and malabsorption.”

Perhaps the wild wild west nature of activated charcoal foods, with people arguing both their detoxifying and their detrimental effects, is what led the New York Department of Health to ban them entirely from being sold earlier this month. But it these moody foods are still being sold in a city near you, except under the narrowest conditions, foods made with activated charcoal should probably be passed over until the FDA decides to actually begin policing them.


Kevin Farrell

About Kevin Farrell

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