What Is Activated Charcoal?

Activated charcoal is pitch black and picture perfect

Start the year off right with the healthy ingredients, dishes and recipes that will stick with you long after you've abandoned those pesky resolutions. We're going all in on Clean(er) Eating—and drinking, too.

The antidote to the rainbow bagels craze of 2016 has arrived. Activated charcoal—recognizable to paramedics as antivenom and to beauty insiders as black gold—is the latest cult ingredient to have culinary trendsetters reaching for their phones. Are you ready for pitch-black cold-pressed juices and inky signature cocktails?

Of course you are.

Mixologists are among the earliest adopters of the trend, adding a dash of activated charcoal to their creations for eye-catching, highly Instagrammable results. Last summer, The Drink Blog created an activated charcoal concoction called June Gloom, combining the pitchy powder with tequila, Grand Marnier and lemon simple syrup. At New York City speakeasy Slowly Shirley, owner Jim Kearns offers the Perla Negra, a tiki-esque cocktail made with activated charcoal, aged rum, ginger, honey, citrus and arrack, served in skull-shaped glassware. Another Manhattan bar, Pouring Ribbons, adds the black powder to blanco tequila, mezcal, and raspberry and lime juices in its Heart of Darkness drink.  

Slowly Shirley's Perla Negra drink | Photo: Nick Volderman

Juice Served Here, a Los Angeles mini fleet of juice bars specializing in customized cleanses, bottles a black lemonade, made with activated charcoal, alkaline water, lemon juice and agave nectar. The Orange Avocado, a juicery in Boardman, Ohio, combines watermelon and lemon juices with activated charcoal in its Midnight Lemonade. Inspired by activated charcoal's popularity in beauty products, Juice Generation, the NYC-based purveyor of organic smoothies and acai bowls aplenty, introduced a line of activated charcoal-infused beverages in 2015.

Like most Instagram-friendly food phenomena (see also: frosé, unicorn everything), activated charcoal is best consumed in moderation.

"When charcoal is activated, it [has] a magnetic effect," Miranda Hammer, certified dietitian nutritionist and author of The Crunchy Radish blog, explains. "It attracts toxins throughout the body, inhibiting the absorption of toxic substances and acting as a cleanser."

However, "the source of the charcoal you are consuming may be iffy, so be mindful of what you are actually putting in your body and where it comes from," she says. 

Hammer warns that activated charcoal is not an advisable detox or hangover-prevention plan.  Its "magnetic effect not only causes the bad guys to be absorbed, but also the good nutrients [in your body] . . . Meaning the vitamins and minerals in whatever you are consuming the charcoal with are getting flushed out," she says. This "may also inhibit the effectiveness of any medication you are taking, aka your birth control."

Proportions, too, are key: Dosage for most activated charcoal brands is one teaspoon, whereas cocktails such as the June Gloom call for a quarter teaspoon. If you're drinking four cocktails in order to detox, well, you may need to rethink your approach.

Activated charcoal has always been an agent of change. Now, in the dregs of winter, its distinctive hue brings seasonally appropriate darkness to your cocktail, juice and Instagram feed. With inky bagels, ice cream cones and infused lattes inevitably ascendant, there's never been a better time to be in the black.