Activated Charcoal: a harmless food trend or not?

Activated Charcoal: a harmless food trend or not?

  • 2 February 2020
If you think charcoals only use is for the braai, think again - it has been one of the trendiest ingredients to use in food and drinks for the last few years. From kombucha, to waffles, to jet black ice creams and lattes - these foods look striking on instagram, but most people actually consume it for the supposed detoxifying properties.

“But aren’t burnt and blackened foods actually bad for you?” you may ask while you scrap the burnt black bits off your toast. Let’s look at why activated charcoal has been hailed as the latest health ingredient and whether those detoxifying effects are legit.

What is activated charcoal exactly?

Activated charcoal is a fine black powder. It’s different from regular charcoal you’d use for the braai because of the way it’s manufactured. Charcoal is made from coal or wood, and is then heated to a high temperature and treated with a gas to make activated charcoal. During this process, thousands of microscopic pores are formed on the surface of the activated charcoal molecules.

Why do people eat it?

The millions of little pores on each particle mean it can bind substances and trap the molecules in the charcoal. So if you swallow activated charcoal, it will bind substances in your stomach and gut and prevent them from being absorbed into your body. This ability to absorb substances has given it its "detoxifying" status.

Some health fanatics claim that this detoxifying property means activated charcoal has a host of benefits, like brightening skin when used in cosmetics, whitening teeth, and detoxifying the body when it’s eaten.

Does it actually work?

Activated charcoal is traditionally used in hospitals, where it is sometimes administered to treat accidental poison consumption and drug overdoses, instead of pumping the stomach. The activated charcoal soaks up the poison and drugs, and prevents them from entering the bloodstream.

However, the pores can't differentiate between drugs and other substances, like nutrients or medicines. So the activated charcoal can bind to other substances that we need - like minerals, vitamins, and medicines - and prevent them from entering our system.This means that when we eat instagrammable foods laced with this black powder, we absorb less nutrients, and if we recently took medication, that won’t be effective either.

New York City banned activated charcoal in food products a while ago, because it’s actually indigestible and can cause nausea and constipation if taken in high amounts.

Like many recent trendy ingredients, there hasn't been enough time for scientific studies to determine the truth. There’s evidence that shows activated charcoal toothpaste can actually make your teeth grey if used over a long period of time!

Remember, your body does a pretty good job at detoxifying itself. Of course, consuming poison or overdosing is a different story, so we should perhaps just leave this fad substance in the emergency room where it belongs.