21 June 2017

Cristina Stewart
Intern

Activated charcoal is indicated for medical use, primarily in the treatment of poisoning or drug overdose in hospital. More recently activated charcoal has become, what could arguably be described as, one of the most bizarre ‘detox’ trends. Activated charcoal is taking Instagram by storm, and being promoted not only for skin treatments and in teeth whitening kits but also in the form of supplements (as a liquid, powder or tablet) and in drinks such as charcoal lattes.

So what exactly is activated charcoal?  
Activated charcoal is, unsurprisingly, derived from charcoal. However, it is very different from the charcoal you put on a fire or use for your BBQ. It is reheated at very high temperatures and “activated” through special processing that produces lots of holes substantially increasing the charcoal’s surface area.

There are many purported health benefits of activated charcoal on the internet, from cleansing the body of toxins and impurities to being a hangover cure. Newspapers have also caught on, with headlines like “It’s claimed to ease bloating, beat hangovers AND give you whiter teeth, but would you dare to try the latest health-foodie fad and chomp on charcoal?” and “Cold pressed charcoal: the new health juice we’ll all be drinking in 2017”.

Is there any science behind it?
Not a lot of research has been carried out on any potential benefit to health of taking activated charcoal. However, we do know that medical professionals use it in treatment of poisoning, as it can bind with certain drugs and poisons, and reduce the absorption of these from the gut into the bloodstream. Activated charcoal is also a recommended treatment for flatulence, with evidence consistently showing that it helps remove excess gas from the gut. Whilst a health claim for this benefit (1 g at least 30 minutes before a meal and 1 g after the meal) has been approved for use, there is no evidence to suggest that taking activated charcoal could have any other benefit to health.

Are there any negative effects?
Interestingly, active charcoal binds with some substances and not others - activated charcoal does bind well to many prescription drugs. This means that medication may become less effective in those relying on medications while also taking activated charcoal. However, whilst some people look to activated charcoal as a hangover cure, it actually binds poorly to alcohol. The potential of activated charcoal in new fashionable foods or drinks to bind with other nutrients in the gut and reduce their bioavailability has not been well researched, although there is some limited evidence to suggest it may make the ‘health’ juice or smoothie a little less nutrient-rich!

So what is the verdict?
No single food or supplement is going to magically improve our health, regardless of how many ‘superfoods’ claim to. Many of the popular claims for these foods, including foods or drinks with added activated charcoal made by media headlines and celebrity bloggers are just simply not based on evidence.

The term “detox” is growing in popularity, with the perception that we need to remove the build-up of “toxins” from our body to stay healthy. However, it’s important to remember that scientifically, detoxification is done by the body (e.g. by the liver and kidneys) and not by a glass of juice. Instead, it’s best to stick to impartial, authoritative and evidence-based information and follow a healthy, balanced diet.