A few years ago, activated charcoal became an instant health fad after being touted as a miracle supplement. The element starting appearing everywhere: in products like teeth whiteners, face masks, and detox drinks. It also quickly caught on as a food trend—though the powder doesn’t add much in the way of flavor, it’s an effective dye that turns most things jet black, making for an Instagram-worthy shot.
Here’s the kicker: Activated charcoal actually is the ultimate detox, but maybe not in the way some people think. Here’s everything you need to know about the miracle supplement.
What is Activated Charcoal?
The charcoal that is most-often used in the food or wellness industry is activated charcoal, which is usually made from ingredients that include coconut shells or bamboo. This charcoal is created by heating the shells or bamboo at very high temperatures until they turn into ash. These ashes are then processed with hot air or steam, again at extremely high temperatures.
This processing oxidizes, or ‘activates’ the charcoal, increasing the overall surface area. Activated charcoal has lots of small holes in its surface, allowing it to soak up a variety of chemicals. This is why it is used in filtration products, including water filters.
The claimed benefits of Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal has the ability to absorb some toxins, such as poison, in the gut before they can enter the bloodstream. This is why activated charcoal has been promoted as ideal for anyone who is trying to go on a cleansing diet.
Activated charcoal can be taken in pill form or added to food items. There are even claims that it fights hangovers, reduces some side effects of food poisoning, and has anti-aging properties.
Other claims for activated charcoal include improving kidney health, diarrhea, intestinal gas, reducing gastrointestinal damage, chronic kidney diseases, and inflammation.
Although it has been shown to be an effective treatment for excessive flatulence if taken both before and after eating, there have been no credible research studies demonstrating that activated charcoal can have such widespread benefits.
Also traditionally, activated charcoal has been used as a natural water filter. Similar to its functions in the gut, activated charcoal can also absorb some minerals and chemicals which are found in water.
Despite the lack of evidence, many people use activated charcoal for supposed detoxifying effects. This is the reason the charcoal trend has an appeal to people passionate about wellness.
What is the other side of the story?
While there has been a lot of talk about the supposed benefits of charcoal, there are a number of downsides to the use of activated charcoal in food.
The charcoal absorbs many things the body needs, such as nutrients and medications, preventing them from being used by the body. It also readily absorbs water from the gut, which can lead to dehydration and constipation.
Because activated charcoal can only absorb substances in the gut, it is almost useless for detoxifying the blood. And, while charcoal cocktails might look appealing, there is no evidence to show that it won’t give you a hangover.
Charcoal’s abrasive properties mean that it is also a popular ingredient in toothpaste. However, many dentists warn that these same abrasive properties can damage your tooth enamel permanently.
Activated charcoal masks have also been touted as fantastic for your skin, claiming that they take away all the dirt and impurities, leaving your skin rejuvenated. Again, the charcoal cannot absorb impurities from the skin, so it may be that the rejuvenating effect is due to the charcoal’s abrasiveness and its ability to absorb water from the skin, further dehydrating it.
Is activated charcoal safe?
When ingested in small amounts, or for medical reasons such as poison control, activated charcoal is safe. However, there is no evidence to support the claims that activated charcoal can have any other health benefit, including as a detox agent or a wellness cure.
The jet black ice creams, burgers, pizzas, cocktails, juices, and other food items containing activated charcoal may be worth sharing on Instagram if that’s what you want. However, it may be good to avoid eating them in large quantities.
For uses like water purification, as a medically-administered antidote against poisoning, and for relieving excessive flatulence, activated charcoal has proven beneficial. However, there is no evidence to support the claims of activated charcoal as related to most health benefits mentioned above, and it may harm your body by absorbing essential nutrients.
If you are still confused, yet keen on trying it out, the best thing to do is to consult your doctor. This will help you consume charcoal in the right dosage to ensure that you avoid any harmful effects.
Have you tried activated charcoal before? What were your experiences with it? Let us know in the comment section below!