For a while, activated charcoal was seen as an art supply, a superfood, and a massive trend among internet influencers that took the food world by storm. This trend was popular among health nuts and people who just wanted some fun black snacks, but is eating activated charcoal in a dessert (or any kind of food really) good for you?

What is Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal, unlike most other kinds of charcoal, is made as a fine powder. The substance itself is made from bone char, coconut shells, peat moss, coal, olive pits, and/or sawdust. When made, the charcoal itself is “activated” by cooking it at incredibly high temperatures. This makes the charcoal more porous, airy, and easy to break down.

The Charcoal Trend

The charcoal food or “goth food” trend features an array of sweets and bread made using activated charcoal as an ingredient. This gives the food a deep black color, making it popular among many younger people as a natural dyeing agent. What’s more, is that activated charcoal was deemed healthy in small amounts—it can help lower cholesterol, whiten teeth, and aid digestion. Activated charcoal is also used mainly in emergency detox procedures, when the toxic substance is safe to throw up, of course.

The unique, natural coloring combined with it’s reported health benefits makes activated charcoal a popular ingredient for all kinds of foods, allowing consumers to indulge in all kinds of sweets while remaining arguably healthy.

New York City Ban

However, New York City banned the production and selling of any foods with activated charcoal as an ingredient in 2018. This meant restaurants would have to take anything that uses the ingredient (most activated charcoals used in food are made with coconut shells) immediately, and any establishment with the substance would be fined. For some restaurants, they’d have to throw out thousands of dollars of product before inspection, with little to no warning. So, why did New York City ban the ingredient in cooking?

Why It Was Banned

Although it’s deemed a “superfood” and is quite popular among health nuts, activated charcoal should not be eaten in large amounts. While the substance itself may help with bowel movements and bloating, large amounts of activated charcoal are used for detoxifying patients in emergencies. In the world of medicine, the term “detox” means to literally flush out poisonous substances that a patient may have ingested. This is great for people that have overdosed on drugs, drank a caustic substance like gasoline, or potentially dangerous gases like propane. However, the “detox” process involves a lot of time in the bathroom. Patients will vomit, have diarrhea, or endure both during the detox.

This of course is what happens when someone ingests a lot of activated charcoal. In foods, it’s not likely anyone will be eating several cups worth of the powder. However, activated charcoal has a few other major side effects: it can prevent the body from digesting food properly and absorbing nutrients. It can make medications and vitamin supplements less effective (once again by blocking the body’s ability to absorb nutrients), and it can cause gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, or even blockages when eaten frequently. In short, these side effects led to the ban.

Does this mean you should avoid all kinds of activated charcoal, even in tiny pills? Not necessarily. If you or a loved one is struggling with digestive problems, speak with your doctor or a nutritionist. They will be able to provide recommendations to help you, and sometimes that may be in the form of a charcoal pill once a week. If not, that’s okay too! Their advice stands above all others and is definitely important to follow.

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