Lattes. Pancakes. Smoothies.
Everywhere I look, some health food restaurant or store is serving up activated charcoal foods or drinks. When I started working on this article, suddenly charcoal foods were everywhere! (But, isn’t that always how it goes?!?) This latest fad in a long line of food and health trends is all the rage. I honestly don’t get out much and stick to the same few +15s and stores in Calgary but last week I think I saw 5 different places advertising their charcoal goods.
What’s the Deal with Activated Charcoal?
If you’ve ever bought an activated charcoal powder, you already know that this jet-black substance can make a huge mess if you’re not careful. Or is just me, who spilled a bit too much all over the bathroom sink and scrubbed for quite some time to get it off? I did enjoy using it on my teeth and then scaring my husband when he walked into the room! Oh, life’s little pleasures!
When you hear charcoal, maybe you think of grilling meat or vegetables in the summer.
But, activated charcoal is not the same as the charcoal used in BBQs. (Thank goodness, right?) This ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese medical treatment has been used for hundreds of years. Medical doctors discovered its benefits for treating poison ingestion. In fact, it was discovered as a remedy for toxin removal when a French professor drank it along with strychnine (he must have been nuts!).
Activated charcoal is made by burning substances like wood, coconut husks, or bamboo without oxygen to get the remaining char. That char is then heated up with various chemicals and oxygenation steps to become its ‘activated’ form. Once activated, charcoal is able to attract to and bind with other substances.
This binding to other substances is what makes it so great for removing toxins and heavy metals from your body.
Is Activated Charcoal Good For You Though?
You know that activated charcoal has some great health benefits when it comes to skin, hair and teeth. Essentially, the charcoal’s ability to bind to toxins (called ‘adsorption’) helps remove debris and foreign build-up on your cells’ surfaces. I won’t go too much into the beauty benefits and products – you can read more about that here.
When used regularly on your skin, hair or teeth, it’s pretty safe because the charcoal isn’t being absorbed into your body.
What About Those Pancakes?
Here’s where the controversy starts.
Certain celebrities have stated that, by consuming activated charcoal regularly, they’re able to reduce the signs of aging, detoxify their bodies, and improve their overall state of health.
Is this true?
Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know all the details, nor do I know what ‘regularly’ consuming activated charcoal means to them.
But here is what I do know.
Activated charcoal, if the right kind is chosen, is safe to consume. However, it’s not really regulated as a food or drug so each brand is quite different. The safest form to consume is from the coconut husk.
Another issue is that activated charcoal as a health supplement is pretty new to the health and wellness world. This means that there aren’t enough scientific studies available to prove that consuming this stuff is good for you.
However, we do know that activated charcoal binds to toxins and other substances, right? This is why it is used in medical facilities to eliminate toxins and poisons when an overdose or exposure occurs.
We also know that activated charcoal doesn’t really discern between different substances. It binds to everything it can! This is the third concern with all those pancakes and lattes popping up in the health food world.
Safe to Ingest…Just Not Very Often
While activated charcoal, if you chose the coconut husk type, is safe to consume, you really shouldn’t put this stuff into your body too often.
Activated charcoal will also bind to healthy substances in your body, too. Things like vitamins and minerals are bound to the charcoal and unable to work their magic. Regular consumption of activated charcoal can actually cause a nutrient deficiency or even malnutrition!
Remember that foods take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours to completely digest and assimilate. Consuming activated charcoal within that timeframe puts your body at risk for diseases and disorders associated with lack of proper vitamins and minerals.
Activated Charcoal for Detoxification
Here’s the skinny on liver and total body detox programs. Your body does already have a great internal detoxification system. If you eat healthy, whole foods at least 80% of the time, chances are your body can handle the toxins thrown at it.
However, when you’re stressed, live in an urban area, take birth control pills or other medications, or exercise a lot, chances are your body might not be able to keep up with the toxins, excess hormones and other substances that need regular neutralization and removal.
Add in a highly processed diet along with regular consumption of alcohol, caffeine and any other problematic substance, and you might benefit from a detox.
Essentially, if you’re alive today, you probably need some help with detoxification! Hundreds of years ago before industrialization and the always-connected generation? Not so much.
Most people show remarkable improvement in sleep, energy levels, skin conditions, digestion and other symptoms of toxicity simply by eliminating non-foods (i.e. processed crap, alcohol, caffeine, etc.) and focusing on a whole foods-based diet.
So, do you need extra detox support if you’re eating well? Likely not, though it depends on other factors in your life. Juice cleanses can actually make your liver work harder and reduce its ability to detoxify substances. Your liver needs protein to do its jobs (over 500 of them!) so juice cleanses kind of miss the boat.
Okay, what about activated charcoal?
Well, because it binds to everything, both good and bad, yes, it will help to remove heavy metals and other awful toxins from your digestive tract. However, it will also remove nutrients your body needs to survive.
Of course, it will only bind to whatever it finds in your digestive tract, so don’t believe that drinking or eating activated charcoal foods will help remove toxins already absorbed into the body. Toxins that surface in the hair and skin can be removed by those activated charcoal beauty products, though.
Go ahead and enjoy those black pancakes. Give them a shot, post your pictures on Instagram, and let us all know how they tasted (probably no different but you never know). It’s fun, like green ketchup or purple potatoes!
But, don’t rely on activated charcoal as a regular detoxification method. Overtime, there is a very good chance that you’ll remove too many vital vitamins and minerals and cause health issues down the road.
If you legitimately know or believe you have a heavy metal toxicity issue, by all means give activated charcoal-infused foods a try. Just be careful how often and when you consume the stuff. But, there are more effective heavy metal toxicity protocols available with tons of science to back them up. If you do plan to consume activated charcoal regularly or feel you need a heavy metal detox, I do highly recommend than you work with a health coach or medical professional!