Is the Activated Charcoal Trend All Smoke and Mirrors?

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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Is the Activated Charcoal Trend All Smoke and Mirrors?

Food trends are a funny thing. Take kale. (No, please, take my kale.) That trend had a little bit of everything going for it. Kale was hailed as a superfood. It came along right as the farm-to-table and eat local movements were breaking through, a coincidence that put kale at the center of the proverbial culinary innovation table. It also, you know, tastes pretty good — a welcome change from mixed greens, spinach or whatever leafy vegetable you were always trying to eat more of.

And now take charcoal.

Yes, charcoal. Like, the brick you throw in your grill. Over the past few months, activated charcoal has become downright trendy.

There’s charcoal ice cream (at Morgenstern’s in NYC and Little Damage in LA). Organic juice shops are selling charcoal-infused lemonade. (It looks like something Daniel Plainview would covet in “There Will Be Blood.”) Charcoal-based pizza crust? DC’s Bidwell is on it. And naturally, the craft cocktail trend is on board, too, with oily drinks popping up from coast to coast. You can buy charcoal-based chocolate hearts (just in time for Valentine’s Day). In Japan, ahead of the trends as ever, you can even get an all-black burger with a charcoal-infused bun at Mickey D’s.

WHY CHARCOAL? WHY NOW?

Blame Instagram. Black foods look weird and the origin story makes for great caption fodder. Charcoal also has a reputation as a detoxifier — hospitals keep it around to prevent ODs — and everyone knows trends beget trends.

So is charcoal-mania the real thing or more fake news? We decided to ask James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition consultant Sidney Fry. Here’s what she said:

For the most part there isn’t any science to back up all the charcoal hype. Our bodies are designed to be pretty good detoxification systems, especially when you stick to a pretty healthy way of living most of the time. Charcoal might even bind to good things like vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients … leaving you worse off than you were before.”

So it turns out you can probably put down the charcoal chai. But that got us to wondering: What about all the other products that use charcoal? After all, we’ve seen it touted for whitening teeth, for fixing itchy or flakey scalps, for detoxing the skin (when used in a soap), and more.


READ MORE > A LOVE LETTER TO BROCCOLI: WHERE IS THE RESPECT?


“Anything you put on skin is absorbed into the body,” Fry told us. “I’m sure it’s less concentrated than ingesting it … but I’d say same rule applies!  As far as teeth go, well … once again there isn’t any scientific evidence or proof. From what I’ve read, dentists are more concerned about the unknown long-term effects. It’s very abrasive … and teeth are permanent. They don’t grow back!”

Indeed. All of which is to say there remains only one area where charcoal’s superiority remains beyond question: what to use when grilling steaks this summer.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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