You’ve probably seen black foods trending everywhere on social media lately. Black ice cream, hamburger buns, brownies, and even dumplings! This is all due to the addition of charcoal to foods, which make them black, and also lend supposed health benefits to the foods. But are these health benefits for real? And is adding charcoal to food even safe?

When we all eventually got tired of seeing unicorn (or rainbow-colored) desserts trending on social media, it seemed there was a new trend ready to take its place. That’s where pitch-black foods came into play. The ingredient responsible for this color is activated charcoal.

Activated charcoal (also known as activated carbon) is made from bamboo or coconut shell and is similar to the charcoal you would use in your barbecue. It lends an earthy or smoky (albeit weak) flavor to foods, while the color gives it an unusual look (some might even say fashionable). It’s not even limited to food only: you can find it in face masks and even medicine. In fact, it’s been used in hospitals for many years as a way to prevent poisoning or lethal overdoses. The carbon has strong adsorption (not absorption, note the “d”: this means that it “sticks” to the surface of a substance) properties, making it useful for binding to certain toxins in our bodies. Because it’s such a useful detoxifier, it can be used to cure hangovers and even help for food poisoning.

black ice cream

Of course, the word ‘detoxifier’ gave it somewhat of a celebrity status, which meant it soon popped up on many influencers’ social pages. The health benefits, together with the fashionable and unique look it gives foods, made it the perfect prop for selfies the world over. Of course, it wasn’t long before fearmongering started, and soon foodies were left wondering if they are doing more harm than good.

Activated charcoal has been around for a long time. The folks from Ancient Egypt used it to cure intestinal ailments, while in 400 BC, Hindus and Phoenicians used it for its antiseptic properties. So, what’s the issue? Well, as with everything, moderation is key. Mostly, charcoal is used for its medicinal properties, but consume too much, and you could have an issue.

You see, charcoal is pretty good at adsorbing molecules, and while this is great if you have food poisoning, it’s not so great when it starts eliminating nutrients from your diet. In the same way it picks up toxins and sweeps them out of the body, so too does it pick up essential vitamins and minerals, which discards them with other waste. This is especially problematic for those who are on prescription medication. Charcoal could also adsorb the medication, making it ineffective. And health experts say the range of medication potentially affected by charcoal is pretty wide: from asthma drugs to birth control pills!

If you’re going to eat an ice-cream high in sugar and fat, and somehow believe that the added charcoal will make it healthy, you’re being hoodwinked. The charcoal in your dessert is unlikely to render any health benefit to you whatsoever. If you want to eat it for the cool factor, then that’s fine. But make sure you wait at least two hours before taking medication. And don’t overconsume it!