NYC Cleanses Itself of a Charcoal Food Trend

An inky ingredient holds the promise of detoxification. The Department of Health says nuh-uh.

By Ethan L. Johns
June 08, 2018

Image: Shutterstock

You’ve seen it in your Instagram feed—a black mass that looks like food, but you can’t really know for sure, because food wasn’t meant to be black. It’s filled with activated charcoal, and while it may look pretty neat, selling it might be illegal.

The New York Department of Health has cracked down on restaurants and shops selling foods that contain activated charcoal, Eater reported on Thursday. The DOH has stated that use of the flavorless black ingredient as an additive is “prohibited” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though the FDA claims there are currently no regulations of the sort.

Instagram-famous New York spots have felt the sting over the past two weeks as the DOH has intensified its attack on what they consider to be an “adulterated” food. Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream had to throw out thousands of dollars of product, and Round K coffee has stopped selling its “matte black” lattes.

The coffee shop’s owner has described activated charcoal as “a customer need,” though the Insta-friendly ingredient may be more of a marketing need.

So what exactly is it?

Activated charcoal is very different from the stuff you use in your grill. It’s made by slowly heating wood or coconut shells. A gas is added to the heating process to create holes in the charcoal, thus “activating” it. Once activated, it can act like a sponge to absorb toxins. For this reason, activated charcoal is used in cases of poisoning or overdoses.

Trend-conscious consumers, however, may not realize that activated charcoal also can absorb medications, as well as important nutrients and vitamins. It can also cause digestive problems.

So if you were looking forward to turning your tongue black with some licks from a charcoal ice cream, keep in mind that its effects might not be as benign as the influencers let on.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns