Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Let’s deactivate the activated charcoal detox trend

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Photo by Ken Fager on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A friend recently alerted me to the latest detox trend: charcoal infused beverages. What?? I haven’t seen any around here (thankfully), it tends to take a little while for trends to make their way to Nova Scotia. All of my fingers are crossed that this will fizzle out before it can catch on here.

The argument for these activated charcoal containing beverages, made by beauty bloggers, good old vagina steaming Gwyneth, and the purveyors of these burnt beverages, is that the charcoal will bind any toxins in your body and remove them. Supposedly they’re great for avoiding hangovers and blessing you with glowing skin. Sandwiched in between these arguments in the article linked above is the sensible advice put forth by a registered dietitian:

She notes that adding charcoal to vegetable juice doesn’t make sense because the charcoal — not the drinker’s body — will absorb the juice’s nutrients.

“I don’t really see a purpose,” she says. “I think it’s going on the fad of ‘detox, detox, detox.’ ”

It’s important to be aware that the human body is designed to filter toxins using the liver and kidneys. Most of these detox beverages are a waste of money at best, some are dangerous at worst. Regular consumption of charcoal beverages could actually leave you nutrient deficient, not so great for your skin and other organs. It also won’t remove bacteria, as mentioned by one proponent.

Activated charcoal has been used for years in hospitals (and prior to that by indigenous populations) to help treat drug overdoses and poisonings. The activated charcoal binds to these substances, removing them from the body. Extremely useful in the case of an overdose. Not so useful on a regular basis. If you’re consuming any medication the charcoal will happily bind to that and remove it from your body. The charcoal will also only remove toxins and drugs that have not already been absorbed from the digestive system. Drinking one of these the morning after over-indulging will not cure your hangover. In fact, activated charcoal is not useful in treating alcohol poisoning, nor a number of other poisonings. There are also some medications that activated charcoal can interact with and cause electrolyte imbalances.

While this trend is quite new, it’s hard to say what many of the long-term effects of charcoal ingestion might be. As we know that burnt food, and foods cooked at high temperatures may increase the risk of some cancers, it’s quite possible that charcoal ingestion could pose a similar risk.

Novel idea: How about instead of trying to rid our bodies of toxins, we put nutritious nourishing foods into them in the first place.