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Charcoal Food Craze Getting Dim View From Health Department

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- It's a "dark" trend you might have seen on social media black-colored food, from ice cream to beverages. But the charcoal craze may be short-lived.

Currently, it's the new black: food made with activated charcoal.

"Charcoal stands out as something that's wildly, wildly different," said Ashlyn McFadden, Public Events Manager at San Francisco's SoMa StrEat Food Park. "And when you see it, you go, 'Wow!'"

Activated charcoal comes from super-heating materials like coconut shells or wood. It's NOT the same as your barbecue briquettes.

At the Doughp Cookie Dough Bar at Pier 39, Assistant General Manager Alexis Gutierrez mixed the black powder into chocolate chip cookie dough, then topped it with a matching waffle cone ... for this reporter to try.

"It's really a trendy thing right now. You see other people do it, you want to try it, too," said Gutierrez.

You taste a little bit of charcoal, it's mild. It's good. Tastes like chocolate chips.

The novelty ingredient even got its own summer food festival called "50 Shades of Charcoal" at SoMa StrEat Food Park.

Organizer Ashlyn McFadden says more than 15 vendors whipped up more than two dozen creations from savory to sweet.

"It dissolves really well in homogeneous, creamy foods," McFadden said. "The one that comes to mind most is ice cream."

In New York City, however, the health department has banned activated charcoal as a food additive.

Curious to learn more, I called the California Department of Public Health and discovered something that even those who use the charcoal didn't know.

The health department said federal law has deemed "activated charcoal is not an approved food additive." So why isn't the ingredient safe to eat?

Dr. Ryan Cudahy of Dignity Health Medical Group says while activated charcoal is used in medicine to treat overdoses in the emergency room, there aren't enough studies to show its benefit in food.

"It may cause constipation, because when we use this in medicine, the charcoal kind of sits in the stomach," Dr. Cudahy explained. "It binds everything we want it to, but it doesn't clear very well."

A bigger problem is that activated charcoal absorbs things easily, such as medication. "If we're prescribing you medications and the charcoal is binding things that we don't want it to, then your medications won't be as effective," Dr. Cudahy said.

The state health department says it has not taken any enforcement actions against those using activated charcoal in food, leaving enforcement to local health inspectors.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health says it has not come across the food trend but will look out for it.

Now that they know activated charcoal is not approved, the folks at Doughp say they're switching to a black gel food dye, so they can keep the dark novelty but letting the local charcoal food fad fade away.

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