If all of 2017's trendy foods could be likened to a high school stereotype, the Unicorn Frappuccino would be the sequined prom queen, and the millennial pink smoothie bowl would be her bubbly, popular best friend. Meet the goth: activated charcoal, a processed ingredient often made from heated coconut shells that turns food black as night.
It has been a popular component in fresh-pressed juice for two years, but charcoal has been popping up recently in other applications, too. You can get charcoal in your cocktail, or your pizza crust, which makes a striking backdrop for that pepperoni. And there's nothing quite like the sweet-meets-tough visual mashup that is a cone of black charcoal ice cream, a Los Angeles treat that has become a popular Instagram photo op.
“When [people] see something really rare, they want to try it for themselves,” says Shizu Okusa, co-founder of Jrink Juicery, the D.C. company that sells a charcoal-infused “Black Magic” juice.
At Bidwell, the restaurant in Union Market, it's on the menu in the form of a pizza crust. Chef John Mooney has also used it in burger buns, corn tortillas and smoothies. "The charcoal has little to no flavor at all," says the chef in an email. "It does make a nice texture, especially in the pizza dough."
Diners might detect a hint of earthiness in his charcoal crust, which is thinner and crispier than his usual pizza dough. At Jrink, its flavor is undetectable in a drink that tastes like grape-tinged lemonade.
Restaurants don't use it only for looks. There are a number of claims about the medicinal values of activated charcoal. Mooney's menu says it "is a natural purifier and aids in digestion."Jrink claims that it helps with hangovers and lowers cholesterol.
But it’s a controversial ingredient. Activated charcoal is used to treat victims of poisoning or overdose in a hospital setting. It binds to chemical toxins in your stomach to flush them out — but it binds to a lot of good things, too.
"It doesn't pick and choose," says Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For example: It can make drugs such as blood pressure medication and oral birth control less effective. And she says studies about its benefits outside of treating overdoses have been inconclusive.
Most food applications for charcoal use very small doses. But it can be hard to know exactly how much charcoal is in your food or drink, so Lemond urges people on medications to avoid it altogether.
For everybody else: Know that your body is already pretty good at removing toxins. If you’re going to try charcoal-infused food, do it for fun — or for Instagram. But don’t overdo it.
“When somebody gets into something, they just want to binge on it,” Lemond says. “When [people] start thinking something is good for you, they’re putting it in everything. All of it, it does add up. You have to be careful.”