For some reason, black foods are really in right now.
Visit just about any foodie blog, and you’ll find striking pictures of pitch-black pastas, ice creams, and breads. Burger King even introduced a black hamburger bun for the 2016 Halloween season.
In many cases, these foods are completely safe; the coloring is mostly natural in origin, and unless you have an extremely specific allergy, you won’t suffer any ill effects.
But not all of those foods are created equal. Some use activated charcoal as a food coloring agent. Activated charcoal isn’t harmful on its own, but it can make certain types of birth control less effective, potentially allowing for an unplanned pregnancy.
Wondering what makes this effect possible?
The issue is absorbency. Charcoal is essentially carbon with small pores, and activated charcoal is specifically created to have a large number of these little holes. It’s typically made by heating up coconut shells, so it’s not the same thing as the charcoal briquettes you’ve used at summer barbecues.
Thanks to the aforementioned pores, activated charcoal is extremely absorbent, which is why it’s sometimes useful in medicine. The charcoal absorbs chemicals, then passes out of the patient’s body without allowing those chemicals to take full effect. You’re probably seeing the problem here.
Activated charcoal can absorb some birth control medications, lessening their effectiveness. Obviously that’s a serious issue for the women who depend on oral contraceptive pills as a primary form of birth control.
“Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose,” Patricia Raymond, MD said in an interview with Women’s Health. “But 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.”
This issue isn’t limited to birth control.
Activated charcoal can make many medications less effective, so if you’re taking any prescriptions, ask your doctor before trying any foods with activated charcoal (or any other unusual ingredients, for that matter).
You should also check for the presence of activated charcoal (also called “activated carbon” or “coconut ash”) when buying new foods or supplements.
This is particularly important if you’re considering a “cleanse,” as many cleansing products use activated charcoal as a primary ingredient. Most will also have a warning label that clearly explains the danger—but the key word there is “most.”
Activated charcoal is also sometimes marketed as an alternative medical treatment for digestive issues (the science doesn’t back up that usage, but that doesn’t tend to stop most people). It’s frequently sold as a powder, pill, or capsule, but it’s remarkably versatile. After all, it’s nothing more than carbon.
Here’s the bottom line: If you take any medication regularly, be aware of this potential interaction. Keep your doctor in the loop, especially if you’re using alternative medicine. And before you try one of those charming jet-black foods you’ve seen on Instagram, consider where the food dye comes from.