A charcoal-grilled burger, though delicious, wouldn’t be considered a new culinary trend. But you may find charcoal popping up as a star-ingredient in other foods on the menu. Trendy cafes and restaurants are using “activated charcoal” [a pitch-black powder often made from fired coconut shells] in things like fresh-pressed juices, hamburger buns, and pizzas crusts.
Why are people eating charcoal?
Besides the intriguing hue the pitch-black powder gives to normally bland-colored foods, the charcoal is also claimed to have health benefits. During the processing of “activated charcoal”, common charcoal (made from peat, coal, wood, coconut shells, or petroleum) is heated in the presence of a gas that causes the charcoal to become extremely porous. This is thought to help capture/trap chemicals and toxins inside the body.
Claim to Fame: a “natural” detoxifier
Activated charcoal is being marketed as an ingredient that detoxifies your body. Other popular claims include preventing hangovers, reducing indigestion, and lowering cholesterol.
Show me the Science: What’s the evidence?
Angela Lemond and Taylor Wolfram, registered dietitian and spokeswomen for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the United States shared a few reservations for the use of activated charcoal explaining that it is true that activated charcoal can trap chemicals and poisons in the body to prevent their absorption (this is why charcoal has long been used as an effective treatment of overdoses and poisonings in a hospital setting), BUT this “trapping” property may also prevent necessary nutrients from other food/supplement sources consumed in transit within our bodies from being absorbed as well.
Lemond says, “It doesn’t pick and choose” what things to trap and which to allow. For instance, It may interfere with medications, oral birth control, and other key nutrients.
Wolfram states, “There is no concrete evidence to support the use of activated charcoal to lower cholesterol, decrease flatulence, remedy hangovers or help the body “detox”.
The Good News:
There are plenty of other healthy ways to help “detox” your body
Eat the rainbow – an array of colorful fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains will reduce free radicals which are essentially toxic to your health
Be Kind to Your Liver!
The best detoxifying organ in your body. Your liver purifies your blood and plays a role in almost every other organ system in your body. So drink plenty of water (25-30 mL per kg body weight) and if you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation! Your body will thank you
The evidence behind activated charcoal health claims are limited. There haven’t been many high-quality research studies looking at this “detoxifying” ingredient
There are many other foods & beverages that are known to reduce free radicals (“toxins”), so picking those more often will “detox” your body in a safer and more effective way
Trying an eye-catching charcoal-dish or drink is unlikely to harm you if you aren’t on any medications, but don’t go overboard with your consumption
Free Radicals – unstable, "reactive" waste products. High levels can cause cellular damage, increasing the risk for chronic diseases (e.g. cancer). Sources of free radicals:
Quality Reference Sources for More Information:
Research review: Pirelli T. The Truth About Activated Charcoal: 159 Studies Reviewed. Healthy but Smart. 2015. Available at: https://healthybutsmart.com/activated-charcoal/#pain2.