Doctors recommend going easy on ice cream, juices and other treats blackened with activated charcoal this summer. They’re being pedaled to health-conscious buyers as a natural detoxifier.
Restaurants are starting to work the ingredient, which comes from burnt wood, shells, and other materials, into food and beverages in hopes that diners will post photos of their midnight-black meals on social media.
Activated charcoal is processed at higher temperatures than regular charcoal, which changes its internal structure. It binds to substances easily, so medical professionals often give it to patients who are overdosing or who’ve consumed poison. The charcoal soaks up the toxins, which reduces how much the patient absorbs.
San Francisco hosted a charcoal festival last year, selling blackened cookie dough, lemonade, pizza and empanadas. Organizers claimed the black powder could whiten teeth, cure hangovers and rejuvenate skin.
But Dr. Rais Vohra, medical director of the Fresno division of the California Poison Control System, said when activated charcoal is used in food, it doesn’t do much more than add color.
“You’re really just gonna poop it out,” he said. “I’m not sure that it benefits them, but it’s not going to cause any harm.”
But there is some risk. Vohra said activated charcoal, if taken regularly, can bind to important substances that the body needs. And if someone consumes charcoal within a few hours of taking a prescription drug, it may negate the medication’s effects.
“It can actually bind up things that already in our bloodstream and pull them out,” Vohra said. “So you eventually get leeching of things like your vitamins and nutrients”
Experts say activated charcoal is generally safe in small quantities, though it’s not on the Food and Drug Administration’s approved list of additives. And New York City ordered restaurants to stop selling it last summer.
Vohra says to talk to your doctor before using activated charcoal if you have any digestive issues.