Activated charcoal, also known as activated carbon, is a form of carbon prepared to have a large surface area. Activated charcoal is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning or medication overdoses. It adsorbs (sticks to) substances to prevent them from being absorbed from the stomach into the bloodstream. [link] For the same reason, activated charcoal can disable important, necessary medications.
Though activated charcoal can have many beneficial uses [link], in beverages it is used to turn cocktails black in color. It does not have a significant flavor impact but could have negative impacts on health of people who consume it. Alternatives to activated charcoal are mentioned below.
Outside the US "vegetable carbon black" or "vegetable carbon" or "carbon black" with European food number E153 is approved for food use in the European Union [link] and in Canada [link] but not in the United States (see below) and [link].
In New York, the Department of Health began issuing orders to discontinue the use of activated charcoal in food and beverages beginning in 2016. An article on Eater.com describes the somewhat murky legality as [link]:
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.
In a non-binding FDA memo related to using charcoal as a coloring additive for salt in 2015 [link], the FDA declared that charcoal is not an approved food coloring.
Furthermore, neither charcoal nor red clay is listed in FDA’s regulations for use in coloring food, including sea salt (see section 721(b) of the FD&C Act (21 U.S.C. 379e(b)). Therefore, any food that contains these color additives is adulterated under section 402(c) of the FD&C Act (21 U.S.C. 342(c)). The introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food that is adulterated is a prohibited act. FDA can take enforcement action against an adulterated food product, consistent with our priorities and resources.
In Canada, both "charcoal" and "carbon black" are on the "List of Permitted Colouring Agents" for certain foods [link], including liqueurs; as well as "unstandardized foods" defined as "Unstandardized foods are those that do not have a standard of identity or that deviate from a prescribed standard in any manner."
Activated charcoal may have the side effect of disabling necessary medications, while its only purpose in a drink is only as a colorant to make drinks black. Alternative colorants are listed below.
For an excellent explanation and analysis of the potential impacts of activated charcoal in the cocktail setting, refer to this file from Dr. William Copen. "Activated Charcoal Cocktails: What’s the (Potential) Problem?" [Activated Charcoal Primer by William Copen (PDF download)]
- Activated charcoal is also associated with "detox" movements and it is sometimes added to juices and coffee, but in fact this may bind with the vitamins in the juice rendering them less effective. [link]
- The impacts that activated charcoal in cocktails may have on medication depends on the type of medication, timing of taking medication, and how much activated charcoal is in the beverage.
- While some sources say that one shouldn't consume activated charcoal within an hour of taking medication [link], in the Activated Charcoal Primer linked above, Dr. Copen reaches the conclusion*, "In my opinion, for the vast majority of basically healthy people, an interval of about 8 to 10 hours should be enough to ensure that there’s no significant medication adsorption, no matter what your guest ate or will eat."
- Activated charcoal does not absorb or adsorb alcohol. [link]
Alternatives to Activated Charcoal for Cocktails:
If the goal is to turn cocktails black, some alternatives include:
- Squid or cuttlefish ink (note: not vegetarian)
- Black food coloring
- Ground black sesame seeds
- Black currant
"Surprise, NYC Apparently Has a Ban on Black Foods with Activated Charcoal," Eater.com [link]
"Making Black Cocktails Without Activated Charcoal" Daily.SevenFifty.com [link]
"Activated Charcoal Cocktails: What’s the (Potential) Problem?" [Activated Charcoal Primer by William Copen (PDF download)]
"Italian health ministry cracks down on use of activated charcoal in 'black bread'" [link]