Photos of black-tinged burgers, coal-coloured smoothie bowls and inky-toned ice cream quickly drum up likes on social media, but what is this dark powdery stuff that has everyone talking? It’s called activated charcoal, and it’s burst onto the wellness scene with gusto. Black and sandy with an icing sugar consistency, activated charcoal isn’t just appearing in our food. It’s now on the shelf at your local health shop, and it’s also turning up in the toiletries aisle, in products including toothpaste and face masks.
Whether you choose to eat it in a burger or squeeze it on your toothbrush, the idea is the same – that the charcoal binds to toxins, either in the gut or on the body, which in theory can assist with our natural detoxing processes. It’s typically made from coconut shells, bamboo or other materials containing carbon, heated to a high temperature to transform it to charcoal, and then oxidised, or ‘activated’. In its raw form before it’s ground into the powder we see in health stores, activated charcoal has a porous, sponge-like texture, and it’s these tiny holes that are thought to boost its filtration effects.
Despite the recent attention, activated charcoal as a modern health aid isn’t exactly new – it’s long been used in medical settings to treat drug overdoses and poisoning, as the binding properties of the charcoal hinder the absorption of certain toxins in the gut. But its latest incarnation as a wellness product isn’t without its critics. Here, we look at both sides of the story.
CHARCOAL BINDS TO TOXINS, WHICH CAN ASSIST WITH DETOXING
While there are few scientific studies on the benefits of activated charcoal in food, fans say its filtering and binding power has anti-ageing properties, can help to lower cholesterol, and reduce the toxins that lead to gastro upsets and bloating. It was also a popular wellness booster in Ayurvedic and traditional Eastern medicine, where it was used to whiten teeth and cleanse the body of mould spores.
These days, it’s the celebrity endorsements that have brought activated charcoal back into the mainstream, with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian and Kate Hudson singing the praises of the black powder. But despite the hype, it’s hard to find scientific proof that activated charcoal actually works.
In one 2012 study, a small group of volunteers, all with a history of intestinal issues, were asked to take activated charcoal tablets three times a day for two consecutive days. Researchers then did an ultrasound which revealed the gastrointestinal tract of each volunteer was far clearer than before they took the charcoal, with less of the enzymes that cause gas and bloating.
A 2017 study recorded in the medical journal, PLOS One, also noted the potential for activated charcoal to help reduce bloating. In the 10-day study, volunteers who took activated charcoal three times a day all reported less abdominal discomfort, and researchers hailed the results as “promising”.
Volunteers reported less abdominal discomfort
So far, there’s no evidence to prove that using activated charcoal outside of professional medical use absorbs toxins, and many experts say the small amount included to colour smoothies, ice cream and bread is unlikely to have an impact on pollutants in the body.
In medical settings, activated charcoal does have an effect in the gut, however it only binds to certain poisons and medications, rather than a broad range of toxins. It’s been touted as a hangover cure, but again, this is too good to be true. There’s a reason why emergency room doctors don’t treat alcohol poisoning with charcoal – it’s useless where alcohol is concerned.
And the other issue is, while activated charcoal can ‘suck up’ certain molecules in its path, it can’t distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ compounds. So that pricey charcoal fruit juice you thought was loaded with vitamin C? It might be more coloured water than nutrient elixir. Evidence suggests activated charcoal can also bind to certain vitamins, like calcium and potassium, greatly reducing their efficacy in the body.
The same goes for certain medications, and activated charcoal can reduce the effectiveness of ibuprofen, as well as some birth control pills, antiinflammatories, and asthma medications.
When it comes to eating activated charcoal with your lunch, it seems that black-hued food won’t harm you, but it probably won’t be the answer to your health woes either. As with many DIY detox remedies, the general consensus from the medical world is that for most healthy people, the body does a great job at detoxifying itself already, no black smoothies required. ■