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At By Chloe, a hip vegan restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood, you can order a cold-pressed juice called On the Road ($9.95) made with lemon, pure maple syrup, filtered water and the season's hottest new drink ingredient, activated charcoal. According to the restaurant, the bottle is a "great go-to for the next morning if you’re feeling a little sluggish or even hung over.”
Speaking of booze, a little further south, you can sidle up to the bar at Beauty & Essex on the Lower East Side and ask for the Black Tie White Noise, a combination of activated charcoal, yellow chartreuse, lemon, whiskey and single malt scotch. On the opposite coast in Venice, California, Charcoal restaurant pours a seductive-looking Midnight Margarita with tequila, lime and the eatery's namesake ingredient.
Long a staple at health food stores, the powdery black substance is starting to gain a foothold in the food and drink world as notable chefs and mixologists have started to highlight the ingredient.
But what exactly is activated charcoal and why is it suddenly all over menus? For starters, it’s not the same as the stuff you use for your summer cookout. Activated charcoal is a special version that’s heated in the presence of a gas that causes it to develop lots of tiny holes. It’s those pores that trap chemicals in the stomach and intestines, preventing certain types of poisoning — the reason why activated charcoal is typically used in emergency rooms to treat drug overdoses.
Sounds like a great way to detox, right? Well, while people have been known to use activated charcoal to treat their hangovers, there’s no real evidence that it actually works. Still, that hasn’t stopped folks from sipping murky-looking juices that feature the ingredient. Juice Generation’s group of cold-pressed juices includes three with activated charcoal — Activated Lemonade, Activated Greens and Activated Protein — and the line is the company’s bestseller.
Not everyone is using activated charcoal simply for its reported health benefits, like Carlos Abeyta, head bartender at Beauty & Essex.
“Initially the charcoal was added for color, but ultimately delivered a small change in texture as well,” he says. “The health benefits became void for me because it is, after all, mixed with alcohol!”
A few words of caution before you toss activated charcoal into your next smoothie. Because the charcoal binds chemicals, it can attach to your prescription medication, decreasing its effectiveness. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consult with their doctor before using activated charcoal. And people with a gastrointestinal blockage or who have an issue with slow passage of food through the GI tract should avoid activated charcoal. If you want to try your hand with some charcoal wizardry at home, you can buy it online in tablet or powder form. Just be sure to purchase from reputable sources.
I’m definitely up for trying a charcoal-flecked cocktail, but I’m going to keep my home usage to the filter in my water-pitcher.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, is a nutrition expert, writer and best-selling author. Her books include Feed the Belly, The CarbLovers Diet and Eating in Color. Follow her @FrancesLRothRD.