[GUEST BLOGGER] Activated Charcoal: Benefits and Harms

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Three photos of activated charcoal in food.
Thanks to guest blogger and fellow dietitian, Sarah Gatien, for the informative blog post! You can 
follow her on Instagram: @sa.rah.rah

“Fad: An intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze1″
– Oxford Dictionaries

You’ll know it when you see it: Black lemonade; black burger with even blacker cheese; grey ice cream.  Activated charcoal is making its way through menus and medicine cabinets and turning everything from your food to your poop, black.

So, what is this latest fad and are there any health benefits to turning your food black with activated charcoal?

What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal, or activated carbon, is a fine, black powder usually made from a number of sources including bamboo, coconut shell, and hardwood.  Processes involving high temperatures, steam or chemicals “activate” the charcoal to create tiny pores that increase the surface area (this is part of what makes the activated charcoal able to “pick up” substances).

What is activated charcoal used for?

Because of its absorptive properties, activated charcoal is used for binding and removing substances.  This is often used in emergency medicine for poison control when there is a suspected drug overdose or poison ingestion2.  Other applications include air and water filters where things like foul odours and chemical contaminants are removed (think of your Brita water filter!), and for the treatment of cholestasis during pregnancy.

That’s great, but why is my ice cream black now?

The current fad to add activated charcoal to foods, drinks, and supplements continues to grow in popularity.  The main claim for this substance is that it “detoxifies” the body.  This may have stemmed from its professional medicine use in emergency situations or in air and water filtration systems because it is known to adsorb substances.

Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that regular intake of activated charcoal has any health benefits.

Our current culture is on such a “detox” and “superfoods” kick right now that we’re adding ingredients to our diet without knowing what they actually do!  Currently, there is no evidence to support any “detoxifying” claims for activated charcoal.

In your body, activated charcoal is not absorbed into your blood stream and only interacts with whatever is in your GI tract.  So, that fancy black smoothie concoction packed with extra “superfoods” and nutrients likely wasn’t that effective3.  Because activated charcoal is non-discriminate, that means it will pick up harmful and beneficial stuff in your gut, including vitamins, minerals, and medications4.  This is particularly important if you take medications including those for blood pressure, blood glucose control, and birth control.

Our bodies are usually great at detoxifying on their own.  We have our liver, kidneys, digestive system, lungs, and skin.  These systems are designed to get rid of all the waste in our bodies.  If you feel like they aren’t doing the job, this is when you need to talk to your doctor.

Most studies looking at activated charcoal have been for toxicology purposes.  Many of the claims about activated charcoal for “detoxing” your body, or for the relief of gas, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, or topical treatments is based on personal stories and not on scientific evidence.  In fact, doctors and pharmacists caution that regular use of activated charcoal can result in causing some of the above symptoms, including turning your stool black4.

The Takeaway

This fad is not all it’s cracked up to be and could even potentially be harmful in some cases where nutrients and medications are prevented from being absorbed into the body.  Aside from giving you a fun black mouth, there is no current evidence to support any detox effects of activated charcoal in food or in supplements.

As always, speak to your health professionals before trying out any new supplements, “natural” or not!

My best advice for supporting your health and your organs to do their jobs is to chat with Dua.  As a Registered Dietitian she will help you navigate these “health fads” and guide you in making nutritious choices.

Sarah Gatien, MSc, Dietitian (Candidate)

1Fad [Def. 1]. (n.d.). Oxford Dictionaries Online. In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved February 18, 2018, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fad.
2Barenholtz, H. A. (1988). Handbook of Clinical Drug Data, 6th ed, 1988, p. 631.
3Kadakal, Ç., Poyrazoglu, E. S., Artik, N., & Nas, S. (2004). Effect of activated charcoal on water-soluble Vitamin content of apple juice. Journal of food quality27(2), 171-180.
4PubMed Health. Activated charcoal (by mouth) (2018). Retrieved February 17, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0008816/?report=details.

11 Comments

  1. Bren Murphy says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Thank you for sharing your advice and suggestions – it is very helpful! I always like to check for some substantiated claims before I start on some new health fad like activated charcoal. But personally I am convinced it really helps with detoxing and teeth cleansing/whitening.
    Thank You,
    Bren

    • Dua the Dietitian says:

      I don’t know much about the teeth cleansing part but the research shared above does show that it doesn’t necessarily provide the detox benefit people think it does.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Bren,
      Thanks for your reply!
      The detoxifying characteristics of adsorption are what makes this helpful in poison control in some (not all) emergency situations, but there’s no evidence to support ‘more recreational detoxing’ with charcoal.
      If you are using this for teeth cleaning, definitely use it sparingly and brush lightly because it can be abrasive. I read some articles written by dentists and they definitely cautioned using charcoal.
      That being said, many health professionals can’t give more clarity to recommended uses for charcoal because the evidence either doesn’t support the claims, or there is limited evidence about specific claims.
      Thanks again for your comments!

      Sarah

  2. Hi Sarah, thank you for this post. A lot of useful information. In my opinion, I think “detox” is just one of gold words bringing a lot of attention for marketing product, that’s all.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi! Yes, I agree. People and companies are clever finding and using the right buzzwords to market products. It’s a shame that they also know how to target certain populations, especially those feeling more vulnerable or made to feel more vulnerable. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Sarah great article!! I feel it is different than other supplements because you don’t have to use it daily. It’s up to you: Do you want to take it regularly for an everyday detox, or just keep some on-hand for specific occasions? And it works great for teeth whitening.

    • Dua the Dietitian says:

      Hello Jessica! I would be a bit careful in using it for teeth whitening, some dentists warn against it because it can actually be harsh on the teeth.

  4. Dan Howard says:

    What an awesome information you have given on activated charcoal benefits and harms through this blog and i will also spread this blog to my knows. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Charcoal has been a health and beauty ingredient that has been used for over ten thousand years. This is simply because of the fact of how it works. Charcoal in its purest form – is the essential element of carbon. In the charcoal, it contains millions of microscopic pores that trap tiny debris and bacteria.

  6. Kate Brownell says:

    It is a great post shared by you. Without knowing these much of benefits I have tried the Activated Charcoal Drink Recipes to prevent a hangover. One of my friends shared the recipe with me. Then I was looking for information about the Activated Charcoal, it’s benefits and side effects. Glad to find your article.

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