It’s a popular online food trend but is charcoal REALLY safe to eat?

-Jul 17, Caroline Blight , Health -

Is charcoal really safe to eat
Whether it’s activated charcoal, chia and lemon detox water, iced activated charcoal lollipops or even activated charcoal lattés there can be no doubt that black is back. But is ingesting activated charcoal really good for you? We investigate. 


If you want to get a heap of likes on Instagram this year then make sure that some of your food involves charcoal. But whilst it looks fab in photos and some fans swear by its detoxification benefits, New York City has gone as far as to ban it from being sold in the town.

The Health Department has issued a recall on activated charcoal and reiterated that technically it has always been banned. The reason cited for the clamp down is a petition highlighting the fact that charcoal in food could prevent medication working effectively.


What is activated charcoal?


First things first – the charcoal which is cropping up in face masks and smoothies is not the stuff you are cooking your burgers over on the BBQ. You should never try and consume that kind of charcoal as it’s toxic!

Activated charcoal is made from a from carbon-containing material, like wood, which has been heated to a very high temperature and is oxidized or ‘activated’ which also means becomes porous. These tiny holes are the ones which can suck up chemicals which is why it’s also used in natural water filters too. 

When taken internally activated charcoal can soak up toxins and take them with the charcoal as it leaves the body.


Why is charcoal thought to be beneficial to health?


As activated charcoal has been used for centuries in medicine to help soak up and pull out toxins – for example after a drugs overdose – it’s easy to see why logically this could be used to remove the toxins of everyday living in the 21st century out of our bodies.

But even when given in medical levels it still has efficiency restrictions. It needs to be taken soon after the poison has been swallowed, can only help with poison in the gut and won’t bind with all toxins.. So if it has limited use in a medical environment when given in massive doses, how much good is it in a burger bun?

The amount of charcoal given in an emergency is around 100 to 200 times the amount you’d get in a typical supplement and as it has only been found to work immediately after a toxin has been ingested, so a scoop of charcoal ice cream when you feel peckish is not going to do anything to flush out the toxins you may think you have.


How much research has been done into the benefits of activated charcoal? 


There has not been a great deal of research into whether some of the health claims being made by charcoal sellers online are correct. The studies which have been done often come with conflicting results – so while one will find charcoal can reduce flatulence, another will suggest it has no effect at all.


Can activated charcoal cure hangovers?


Certainly, research has shown that it’s effects are limited to the gut area, so if your charcoal drink is claiming to help remove toxins throughout your body that’s just not going to happen. It’s also been found that while charcoal binds well to your meds and toxins it doesn’t attach to alcohol brilliantly – so is not going to cure that hangover!


Will activated charcoal whiten teeth? 


The only research on beauty claims has not concluded that there are no definite benefits either. Those amazing white teeth after using charcoal toothpaste? In some cases it’s more to do with the contrast of the teeth against the black charcoal which makes them look whiter. Some dentists have argued it can make your teeth duller as fine black charcoal powder could actually become embedded in cracks or small holes in the teeth.


Is charcoal bad for the body?


In the amounts found in many easy to buy charcoal products it’s likely there is no real harm from the charcoal within them. At best they are likely to have no effect at all on our health. But if you are regularly eating or drinking charcoal it could become a problem.


Why has activated charcoal been banned in New York? 


The reason it has been banned in NYC is in part because of the way charcoal absorbs everything – so if you popped a contraceptive pill before you tucked into some charcoal you could find your pill is not as effective as it could be. The same is true of any ingested meds.  Charcoal doesn’t know ‘good’ from ‘bad’ and so just soaks up everything in the gut – and that could include water soluable vitamins and minerals too. So that smoothie with added charcoal could have just cancelled itself out!


Is buying activated charcoal online safe? 


If charcoal does have the ability to pull out nutrients, an area requiring more research, then charcoal could be bad for us. We also need to think about where the products are coming from. Non activated charcoal is toxic and if you are buying from a random seller online you don’t really know what you are getting.


If this has put you off your charcoal latté perhaps try out a broccoli coffee? And, with so many types of oil out there now, here’s which ones are best to use for cooking and which are better if used raw. 

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