I have been hearing about activated charcoal as the latest health craze. Should I be trying to find this to add to smoothies and work into my diet? What is it anyway, and is it good for me?
If you're into smoothies, chances are you've added whey protein, chia seeds, hemp hearts and possibly even spirulina (a blue-green algae) to your power shake. But you might not be familiar with the latest trendy ingredient that's popping up at niche juice bars: activated charcoal, a fine black powder that's also used in air and water filters.
Activated charcoal isn't the same type of charcoal that's used in barbecues. Instead it's carbon from wood, peat, coal or coconut shells; it becomes "activated" when high temperatures and gases create millions of tiny crevices that can bind drugs and toxins once it's ingested. Activated charcoal is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning and drug overdoses. It prevents poisons from being absorbed into the body.
Charcoal-based juices are catching on with detox fans, at least in Los Angeles and Manhattan for now. (You'll also find activated charcoal capsules at supplement stores.) They're touted to remove toxins from the body, cure flatulence (by soaking up intestinal gases), banish bloating, prevent a hangover and lower cholesterol. Yet the evidence that activated charcoal does any of these things is scant and flimsy at best.
Only a handful of (very small) studies have investigated the effectiveness of activated charcoal to reduce gas and blood cholesterol. And the findings were mixed. No research exists to back up the claim that activated-charcoal smoothies and juices clear toxic substances we ingest from food and the environment (e.g., pollutants, pesticide residues, alcohol).
Medical experts believe the healthy human body is well equipped to deal with toxins. And the gastrointestinal tract is only part of our body's natural defence. Our skin, lungs, kidneys, liver and gut all play a role in removing or neutralizing toxic substances within hours of consumption.
That said, drinking a charcoal-based smoothie can aid the body's detox process – but not because it's made with activated charcoal. The fruits and leafy green vegetables supply vitamins, minerals and antioxidants the liver uses to neutralize and excrete toxins; fibre in flax and chia seeds helps the gut remove unwanted substances; and the water in the smoothie helps the kidneys filter out toxins.
In Canada, Booster Juice and Jugo Juice don't offer activated-charcoal drinks on their menus. Jugo Juice isn't jumping on the charcoal bandwagon anytime soon. Cheryl Palamar, manager of menu development and innovation for the Calgary-based company, feels more research is needed to ensure activated charcoal is safe and has proven benefits beyond its short-term therapeutic use against poisoning. There are no studies on its long-term safety in humans.
Activated charcoal is not without side effects. Pregnant or nursing women and the elderly should avoid it. Activated charcoal binds nutrients in foods and supplements, so regular use could deplete certain vitamins and minerals. It can also attach to certain medical drugs; if you take medication consult your doctor or pharmacist before using activated charcoal.
In my opinion, there's no need to supplement your diet with activated charcoal. There are plenty of real, whole foods you can eat – or add to your smoothies – that have well-researched health benefits.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.