Charcoal Is the Latest Food Trend: But Is It Safe?

We asked health experts to weigh in on the craze.

coconut-ash-ice-cream

Just when we thought the latest trend in foods was rainbow, a new color has arrived that threatens to darken the mood. Yes, pitch-black foods (and beverages!) are sweeping the Internet, from hamburger buns and savory crackers to ice cream cones and Ikea hot dogs.

What gives these foods their deep dark hue? Activated charcoal, which is the byproduct of burning coconut shells, wood, or other plant materials. If that sounds dangerous to eat, don't worry: charcoal made from coconut is harmless, and is different than consuming food that has been charred or burnt.

The charcoal is considered “activated” due to its negative charge, which means it supposedly has the capacity to bind positively charged ions (such as chemicals) together, removing them from the body, according to Dr. Jeffrey Morrison, a family practice physician and certified nutritional specialist. This property has prompted charcoal to be touted as the latest detox ingredient—in fact, it's long been used in emergency rooms to stop certain cases of acute poisonings or overdoses.

"Charcoal works by essentially binding the drug or toxic chemical in the stomach before it can be absorbed by the body, providing an effect like stomach pumping without having to pump your stomach," says Julie Upton, MS, RD of Appetite for Health.

“In terms of safety, it’s safe," Morrison says. "But it should be used with somebody’s advice, because if a person uses it incorrectly—like if they take it with a prescription medicine—it can make [the medication] not effective.”

The foods, however, contain a much lower dosage than what's used by a doctor. But unfortunately you shouldn't expect it to dramatically whiten your teeth, or cure your hangover, as is often advertised.

“I don’t see charcoal aiding in the work of our colon or liver,” says Toby Smithson, R.D.N., certified diabetes educator and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Diatetics. “There is not evidence that charcoal can treat hangovers.”

Bottom line? It's no miracle health ingredient, but it sure looks fun—and Instagram-worthy!—if you want to try it (in moderation—don't go on an all-charcoal diet). And after seeing it all over our social media feeds, we gave the Coconut Ash ice cream from Morgenstern’s in New York City a taste. It had a surprisingly tame flavor considering its jet black hue, and wasn't nearly as coconut-y as we were expecting. As for the texture, many tasters enjoyed its creaminess, but a few found it grainy and complained about a chalky aftertaste. Oh, and you might want to steer clear of the trend on a first date: it left our teeth the same dark color as the pint.

The trend has made its way to beauty products, too—so if you're not an adventurous eater, give one of these charcoal beauty products a try.