Should We Really Be Putting Activated Charcoal In Our Ice Cream?
Almond charcoal soft serve ice cream in a chocolate charcoal waffle cone from Little Damage. (Photo by Shane E. via Yelp)
Not too long ago, I remember seeing a bottle of black juice for sale at my local cafe. The color was obviously striking (even black coffee is not black), yet I didn't pay much attention as to why the juice was black. In the preceding months, I've seen everything from a black latte, to a black lobster roll, to black ice cream cones, to black hamburgers and hot dogs saturating my Instagram feed. The reason? Activated charcoal.
Charcoal-tinted foods really took off as a trend in 2016 on the back of the juice craze. In April, goth ice cream hit L.A. with a vengeance via downtown's uber-popular Little Damage. “I first saw it in charcoal lemonades, and I thought that was fun," Jenny Damage, who opened the shop, told Eater. "The ingredient itself didn’t have too much of a taste, so it was a really good base for us to rotate our flavors, using that as our iconic color.”
But, the real question remains: should we really be putting charcoal—the stuff we use to grill our hamburgers—into our hamburgers?
"First of all, in human evolution, black is not an appetizing color," Dr. Zhaoping Li, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, told LAist. "Evolutionarily appetizing colors are red, orange, and yellow—like McDonald's."
OK, then it's not for our appetites, but charcoal has been part of medicine for millennia.
"Charcoal really has two uses," Dr. Li continued. "First, it's a base, so it can be used for heartburn or acid-related issues." Charcoal (as ash, not as "activated" charcoal, which simply means the charcoal has been oxidized for greater porousness) was historically used for indigestion, before calcium carbonate (i.e. Tums, Alka Seltzer) overtook it. "Second, it's used for people who overdose."
Li explained that when someone who has overdosed on drugs is rushed to the emergency room, a tube is placed down their throat, and their stomach is pumped with charcoal. "Lots of chemicals and compounds bind with charcoal, it's very absorptive," Li continued. "A healthy individual may consume it once or twice, and that's fine. But if you begin to ingest charcoal consistently [meaning daily], you're at risk of malnutrition, because the charcoal absorbs all the minerals and may get rid of lots of nutrients."
And this seems to be why the juice industry uses charcoal. As Eric Helms, founder of Juice Generation, told Time magazine, charcoal's adsorbent (yes, adsorbent) properties "basically [draw] toxins out of your body for improved organ function."
"Enjoy the detoxifying benefits of Activated Charcoal and Montmorillonite clay while being hydrated to the max," Juice Served Here writes of their Charcoal Lemonade.
“If you accidentally consume something that you’re sensitive to, like gluten or dairy, having activated charcoal right away may help absorb those things before the body does,” Heather Wilson, a holistic nutritionist in L.A., told Vogue.
So there are certainly medicinal benefits to charcoal. But is it really at the forefront of our thoughts while we're eating charcoal pizza or lobster rolls? We doubt it. Certainly, one of the draws of the ingredient is the striking color, which is to say that it's made for the age of Instagram-friendly eating.