Activated Charcoal: The Food Trend as Black as Your Heart

For some reason, activated charcoal has been having a moment. This pitch-black ingredient has been blowing up news feeds across social media for a while now, first as a popular ingredient in fresh-pressed juice and now as a product found in food items ranging from ice cream to pizza dough. Usually, when you hear the word “charcoal,” you think of day drinking and drunk-eating barbecued burgers but who would’ve thought that the same stuff was apparently amazing for your overall health? After reading up on the food trend (and listing my findings below), I’ve come to the conclusion that if you love eating the ingredients of a face mask, this trend is for you. I mean, even if you don’t like it, at least you know that your skin will be pure afterwards. 


What exactly is activated charcoal?

Unlike charcoal used for your barbecue grill, activated charcoal is typically made from heated coconut shells or other natural sources. It’s a potent natural treatment used to trap toxins and chemicals in the body, thus allowing them to be flushed out so the body doesn’t re-absorb them.

One of the most popular activated charcoal uses is for the treatment of poisoning and drug overdoses. Commonly used in emergency rooms, it has the ability to trap chemicals and prevent them from being absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and into the blood.

So, how does it work?

Essentially, after it undergoes a heating process, activated charcoal develops a very porous surface. This surface also has an overall negative electric charge that causes positively charged toxins and gases to bind with it.

Activated charcoal, then, works by trapping toxins and chemical in its millions of tiny pores, though the chemical process of adsorption (as opposed to absorption). In the body, adsorption is the reaction of elements, including nutrients, chemicals and toxins, soaked up and assimilated into the bloodstream.

How do you use it?

Some health enthusiasts (as well as many hipster food bloggers) theorized that if activated charcoal can soak up dangerous substances, it should be used routinely as a way to cleanse the body of other toxins we’re exposed to (such as pesticides and chemicals in food packaging). Since then, it’s been popping up in a number of supplements, bottled beverages, and food items. You’ve probably also seen it promoted for uses related to oral health (as well as teeth whitening), to alleviate gas and bloating, to treat alcohol poisoning and prevent hangovers, as water filtration, to cleanse the digestive tract, and lastly, to reduce high cholesterol.

But, activated charcoal uses extend beyond internal applications. For external treatments, it’s effective at treating body odour, acne and relieving discomfort from a variety of different skin conditions. In addition, some people even claim that activated charcoal has anti-aging properties.

Last but not least, the side effects!

Activated charcoal is a controversial ingredient. While it binds to chemical toxins in your stomach to flush them out, it also binds to a lot of good things. There’s no picking and choosing with activated charcoal, and it can make prescription drugs such as blood pressure medication and oral birth control less effective. Most food applications for charcoal use very small doses but it can be hard to know exactly how much charcoal is in your food or drink. The most important thing to remember about products that claim to have a “detoxifying” benefit is that your body is equipped with a liver, kidneys, lungs, and a digestive system, which work around the clock to perform “detoxing” functions. If you want to help your body out, the best things you can do are to drink plenty of water, eat foods that naturally enhance your body’s ability to “detox”, such as beets, ginger, turmeric, and cruciferous veggies (yes, kale is part of that list), and avoid artificial additives and processed foods. If you decide to try activated charcoal yourself, just remember that it’s best to not overdo it! I know we all like a good health food trend, but do your research before you start drinking this stuff by the gallon.


Sources: Cover, 1, 2, 3