FOOD

So, Eating 'Activated Charcoal' Is A Thing Now

Just another wacky trend?

03/11/2016 5:39 AM AEDT | Updated 03/11/2016 5:39 AM AEDT
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It's supposed to help detoxify the body and alleviate digestive issues.

There's no other way to say it: food and diet trends are weird. Really weird. Some are easy to get on board with (hey, kombucha and acai bowls), but chewing smoothies? And eating charcoal on a regular basis?

Most of us are familiar with charcoal. It's that messy black stick you used to draw with in school, and the stuff that helps you have a killer barbecue.

But more recently, people are ingesting charcoal for a number of reasons. Why? And how? And it is safe?

"It's 'activated charcoal' that has made its way into the health media, with many claiming that it detoxifies the body," nutritionist Pip Reed told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Activated charcoal is made by burning a source of carbon such as wood or coconut shells. The high temperature removes all the oxygen and activates it with gases like steam. What is left is a highly absorbent material with millions of tiny pores that capture, bind and remove heavy metals, chemicals and poisons."

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The tiny spaces within the activated charcoal 'trap' toxins and chemicals almost like a sponge. It's for this reason that activated charcoal is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning -- if you remember someone from your school having their stomach 'pumped' from alcohol, this is when activated charcoal would have been used.

"Because of its 'detoxifying' capabilities we have recently seen an increase in activated charcoal being added to health foods such as breads, pasta, rice, juices and smoothies," nutritionist Fiona Tuck told HuffPost Australia.

"We are also seeing it being used in toothpaste, face cleansers and masks for its deep cleansing effects."

Activated charcoal can also be found in water filters to purify water, and in tablet or powder form to help reduce flatulence, alleviate symptoms of traveller's stomach bugs and 'detoxify' the body.

"The substance has most recently made its way onto the shelves of health food stores, with claims that it detoxes the body," Reed said.

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Activated charcoal can come in the form of tablets or powder and be added to a range of foods.

However, the theory that eating charcoal regularly enhances detoxification of the body is not as accurate, or helpful, as people think.

"Charcoal's effects are limited to the gastrointestinal tract -- it is not capable to extract toxins from the rest of your body," Tuck said. "Activated charcoal will trap not only poisons but many nutrients, particularly minerals that it comes into contact with."

This means that the current detox trend of adding activated charcoal to juices, smoothies or food can reduce the nutrient content of the food.

"Adding activated charcoal to health foods and drinks is therefore a waste of time and money," Tuck said.

"A study on the 'effect of activated charcoal on water-soluble vitamin content of apple juice' in the Journal of Food Quality found that apple juice with charcoal added resulted in considerable reduction in vitamins C, B6, B1 and niacin than the untreated control sample."

"Activated charcoal doesn't decipher between toxins and good nutrients, so taking it too regularly or with food means that the charcoal will also absorb the nutrients in your system," Reed added.

So, while activated charcoal can be effectively used in response to ingesting poison, there's no need to use it regularly to 'detoxify' the body.

There is simply no demonstrable evidence available to support the notion that a regular dietary intake of activated charcoal is beneficial or helpful in any way.

"The only thing we know for sure is that activated charcoal has been used effectively in medicine to treat poisoning, so in this instance, yes, it does work," Reed said.

"However, claims that activated charcoal can cleanse your system, boost your health and make you live longer are not backed by clinical research. Even proposing that it improves the digestive system cannot be stated as a fact due to the limited research that has been done on the substance.

"Currently, we are only going on reports and claims of people's personal experiences ingesting the carbon."

Tuck also agrees.

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Activated charcoal is even added to some breads.

"While activated charcoal certainly has a beneficial role in professional medicine, taking it regularly to detoxify the body by adding it to juices and foods is misleading," Tuck told HuffPost Australia.

"There is simply no demonstrable evidence available to support the notion that a regular dietary intake of activated charcoal is beneficial or helpful in any way."

Ingesting activated charcoal may also have negative side effects.

"There can even be side effects involved with taking activated charcoal such as diarrhoea, vomiting and constipation," Tuck said.

In any case, our bodies do a pretty good job of detoxifying on their own.

"We are naturally designed to be able to clear waste materials such as toxins, chemicals and old hormones from the body in order to prevent an accumulation of potentially toxic and harmful by products building up in our systems," Tuck said.

The five primary systems in place are the skin, lungs, kidneys, colon and liver. When these systems are working properly, there's no need to add another 'detoxifying' substance. And when these systems aren't working properly, that's when you should see a medical professional.

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There's not enough evidence to support the use of activated charcoal supplements.

"If any of these systems, however, become overburdened from poor lifestyle choices, environmental pollutants, medications or genetic weaknesses, we can find ourselves feeling below average and may need to reassess lifestyle and diet choices," Tuck said.

"Always check with a qualified healthcare professional prior to starting any new health supplementation to prevent any possible side effects or medication interactions.

"Using activated charcoal topically on the skin has deep cleansing properties and suitable for congested, oily or acne prone skin types."

There you have it, folks. Keep charcoal for your face, not your stomach, especially without the supervision of your GP.

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