Edible Charcoal: Cleansing or Crippling?

Charcoal is the new black – it’s been popping up in everything from Croissants and Lattés to Toothpaste and Face Masks, accompanied by the claims of detoxing, whitening and  purifying.

What is it?

Yes it is a block of soot. Although it is processed in a specific way to make it highly absorbent, creating ‘activated charcoal’.

Why would you do that?

It’s actually a staple in hospital emergency rooms where it is used to treat acute poisoning. The high absorbency allows it to bind to any ingested toxins (read poisons) and pull them out of the digestive tract, reducing the amount absorbed by the body.

So why the f**k is it in my food?

Because of the scientific basis for its effective ‘detoxifying’ properties, many health enthusiasts have started to apply activated charcoal to life outside of emergency rooms. The problem is the definition of ‘toxins’. In emergency rooms this means poisons, we tend not to consume large amounts of life threatening poisons on a daily basis and activated charcoal is not selective – it binds to everything, including the good stuff. Our body’s already have defence mechanisms in place for dealing with small amounts of toxins efficiently and safely, the liver being one of them.

Some people take it believing that it encourages weight loss in its laxative-like effect, theoretically this might make sense but there is no scientific evidence to support this idea, although it can make you malnourished if you persist in consuming large quantities as it unselectively binds to nutrients from food. The best way to remove excess sugars and fats from your body? Consume less of them in the first place.

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The ‘Charcoal Cleanse’

There are many Detox Diets floating around cyberspace, the ‘charcoal cleanse’ being one of them. Apparently this entails replacing your meals with pressed fruit juice spiked with charcoal powder for at least a week. This will make you lose some weight but not because of any ‘detoxifying’, it’s simply a strict low calorie fast. Most short term weight loss strategies have been shown to be ineffective long term, with participants quickly gaining the weight back +extra. A great result for profit if you are the one selling the cleanse and want to keep people coming back…

Are there any dangers?

Everything has its pros and cons. The side effects of activated charcoal can include all the usual suspects of diarrhoea, vomiting or constipation depending on dose and frequency. More serious cases may include bowel obstruction or charcoal deposits in the abdominal wall (taking it too often leads to it building up in your stomach).

You also have to take extra precautions when taking any prescribed medication, as charcoal will bind to these and reduce their effect. If for example you are on the birth control pill and enjoying a charcoal latté every day, there IS a chance you may become pregnant!

Ok so what if I put it ‘on’ instead of putting it ‘in’?

In terms of topical applications it can assist in removing stains and whitening teeth when used in toothpaste, there also aren’t many adverse side effects from slathering it on your skin in a face mask. It does seem that it’s much harder to go overboard when spreading it over yourself instead of devouring the stuff.

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I do believe that people are entitled to make their own decisions so long as they have the capacity and resources to inform themselves sufficiently and am not a fan of an OTT nanny state. If you are not reliant on prescription medications, are fit and well and not OD’ing on black beverages for the sake of a crazy ‘cleanse’ then I think – whatever floats your boat! It does apparently have some benefits against bloating / gass, however there are also other ways of dealing with such issues and buying it from cafeterias does make it difficult to determine how much charcoal is in your drink. There are a long list of purported benefits from working as a hangover cure, to reducing acne to treating body odour – the jury is still out scientifically, in each of these cases (it is actually a myth that it binds to alcohol / ethanol, its chemical structure prevents it from doing this).

Dr Michael Lynch is the medical director for the Pittsburgh poison centre and assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the university. He claims that ‘overall it is pretty safe’, even as a small daily supplement, although I cannot think of many situations where that would really be necessary.  As Kristin Kirkpatrick, the manager of wellness nutrition services at The Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute states:

We are constantly looking for a quick fix, and we are searching for it because we have screwed up our diets most royally. Putting activated charcoal into your diets isn’t getting back to the basics – [it’s] a quick fix with no scientific evidence

 

 

 

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