While we all love a good detox and black-grey lattes are hard to resist, there may be more to the charcoal craze than meets the eye.
Understanding how activated charcoal works in your system makes it easy to understand why so many have touted the ingredient as a detoxifying superstar. Through the process of adsorption, activated charcoal is able to bind itself to pretty much anything that has entered your stomach or large intestine in the hour or so prior to your consuming it, which ultimately makes it effective for flushing harmful toxins out of your body and even treating overdoses and poisonings.
The issue, though, is that activated charcoal doesn’t necessarily do a good job of distinguishing the harmful elements in your system from the beneficial ones. This means that in addition to getting rid of the toxins in your body, activated charcoal will bind to things you don’t want to get rid of, like vitamins, minerals, and medications. “Activated charcoal is given to people who take too much medication because charcoal is so absorbent and can counteract an overdose,” says gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, M.D. “But if you’re drinking it and you also are on any meds – even birth control pills – the charcoal is likely to absorb the drugs. So you risk having them become ineffective.”
Luckily, if you’re really stoked about getting black ice cream or a midnight bubble waffle – we get it, getting down with the latest culinary trend du jour can be a little too tough to resist – you don’t have to worry about throwing your system out of whack. In a lot of the mainstream charcoal food and beverages, the charcoal contents are probably not enough to get you seriously sick. However, this means that it’s not enough to really do any detoxifying, either.
The main concern with ingesting activated charcoal in food is the fact that it is unregulated by the FDA. In other words, it hasn’t been banned, but it hasn’t really been approved, either. This means that, while most suppliers source their charcoal from coconut shells or wood that has been burnt to crisps, some more sinister ones source their charcoal from petroleum. And since it’s not regulated, no charcoal producer is required to disclose the source of their charcoal. Pretty sketchy, if you ask us.
So, let’s think about the pros and cons here. Let’s say that you know where the charcoal is coming from because the ice cream shop you’re going to is nice enough to disclose that. Great! Now ask yourself: how long ago did you take your medication? When did you eat your last meal? Can you replace the vitamins and minerals that may be absorbed by the charcoal? All of these, of course, are just precautions. Again, there is probably not nearly enough charcoal in your ice cream (or lemonade, or hamburger buns, or whatever) to make any difference in your body, good or bad.
There are a few pros that come with ingesting charcoal, though. A charcoal capsule before you go to bed, for example, can be an effective hangover cure. Or if you have it before a long car ride, it could fend off motion sickness. Still, charcoal is hardly a cure-all for eating foods you might regret. “If you spent the weekend eating junk food and take an activated charcoal elixir on Monday to undo the damage, that junk food is likely long gone [from your system],” says Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, M.D.
If you really want to reap the “detoxing” benefits of charcoal, your best bet might be to stick to skincare or beauty products that use it as a primary ingredient, instead of including it in your diet. Charcoal washes and face masks are effective because they can bind with dirt and oil in your skin and do away with them. Not quite the internal detox you might be looking for, but it could be your best bet.