Looks like the peak days of Instagrammy black foods might be over for New Yorkers. The Department of Health says that activated charcoal — the black-colored, hippie-esque healthy thing that reportedly sucks up toxins — is banned from all food and drink in the city.
A spokesperson says it’s not a new rule, citing FDA rules and noting that the department has issued “commissioners orders” asking restaurants to nix their activated charcoal products for years now. Since March 2016, DOH has issued several of these orders calling such foods “adulterated food,” adding up to under five times, according to a spokesperson.
But restaurants say that it’s only been in the last few weeks that they’ve been asked to stop selling popular foods with the stuff. Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream was forced to dump about $3,000 worth of product during a routine inspection — with the department saying use of activated charcoal in the scoop shop’s wildly popular black ice cream isn’t kosher, according to owner Nick Morgenstern.
Morgenstern has been serving the ice cream made of coconut ash, a form of activated charcoal, since early 2015 following “due diligence on that product,” he says. In at least three routine health inspections since then, nobody said anything about the regulation, he adds. “There was no notification of the change. There was certainly no notification that the DOH was going to start enforcing this,” he says.
LES coffee shop Round K, meanwhile, received a special inspection from the Department of Health for its activated charcoal latte. The surprise May visit meant that two five pound of bags of activated charcoal were embargoed, and the shop was asked to stop selling the drink. They, too, had no idea that this rule existed, says owner Ockhyeon Byeon.
He started selling it last June and had a routine inspection in November without any issue. He was confused about what seemed like a sudden switch, he says. “Activated charcoal at that time, most people were selling it as a supplement,” he says. “We were thinking it was no problem for food.”
The Department of Health says in a statement that restaurants and cafes aren’t allowed to serve food with activated charcoal in it because it’s “prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive or food coloring agent.”
The FDA says that it currently has no regulation on activated charcoal as a food additive or color additive as an ingredient to be added to food — though companies may decide that their use of activated charcoal is “generally recognized as safe” after approval from “qualified experts,” which allows legal usage before official FDA approval.
Scientists are generally skeptical of the purported health benefits of activated charcoal, like getting rid of bad chemicals in the body, but in small quantities, activated charcoal is not going to hurt you, either. It’s become super trendy for cafes and restaurants with a healthy bent across the country to serve, both in beverages and in foods. Cocktails, burger buns, bagels, and juices have all been sold with the stuff lately.
For Round K, the activated charcoal drink was “critical” to the business, which is in a huge portion of photos taken from the cafe on Instagram. “It was one of our top sellers,” Byeon says. “I think people liked the color.” To keep serving customers some version of a black drink, the cafe is now offering a “matte black 2” drink that eliminates coconut ash and instead uses coffee beans that have been roasted until they are black. It has double the caffeine and is still very black.
Despite the alternative, Byeon has already been in touch with the FDA in hopes of being able to sell the original matte black with activated charcoal again: “It’s a customer need,” he says.
Morgenstern says that though the coconut ash ice cream was a big draw for people, his shop has remained popular without it, doing huge sales in May even without coconut ash ice cream. He is just going to stop serving his version, focusing his time on on opening a big new flagship shop in Greenwich Village, he says.
Still, he’s dubious that the DOH ban on the stuff is helping anybody. “I don’t see any evidence that this is actually a question of public health safety,” he says. “I would challenge someone to identify the public health safety risk of that ingredient.”