Not since the green smoothie or the cronut have we seen a food trend take off as quickly as activated charcoal.
The ingredient is being used in everything from ice cream to bread to lemonade—and is touted as a fun and very Instagram-able way to “detox” your body.
But it turns out there could be a dark side (pun most definitely intended) to the latest food craze: Consuming activated charcoal can decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills and other medications.
According to Eater, food-grade activated charcoal is produced by heating coconut shells to extremely high temperatures. The ash is then “processed with steam or hot air…to produce a ‘microporous structure.'”
That structure then acts like a sponge, absorbing and soaking up all the molecules and toxins in its path.
It’s so good at soaking up toxins that it’s commonly used to treat poisonings by mouth and is even administered in hospital emergency rooms when suspected poisoning has occurred.
But here’s the thing: Activated charcoal doesn’t get to pick and choose what it “soaks up.” So when ingested too closely to medications, even birth control pills, charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs, leaving them ineffective.
“Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose,” gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, M.D., told Women’s Health.
“If you’re drinking it and you also are on any meds, even birth control pills, the charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs. So you risk having them become ineffective.”
Most companies that sell activated charcoal recommend waiting at least two hours between taking medications and consuming their product.
The amounts of activated charcoal in "trendy" products, like black ice cream, shouldn't be enough to impact medications significantly. Still, one woman has started a petition to add warning labels to the product.
"If you eat activated charcoal shortly after taking a hormonal contraceptive, you could wind up pregnant," the woman named Julie writes. "In the interest of informed consent, ice cream shops should let their customers know the risk."
Adds Julie: "Please sign this petition to ask companies using activated charcoal in their ice cream to add a little warning label to let people know they should wait 2 hours between taking medicine and enjoying their treats!"
So far, more than 19,900 people have signed the petition.
Jenny Damage, owner of Little Damage, a Los Angeles based ice-cream store that sells black ice cream, told Eater that customers worried about the negative effects of the ingredient should consult with their doctors.
Meanwhile, it's also worth noting that many other common foods—like liquorice and grapefruit juice—can also change the effectiveness of everyday medications.
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