You don’t just use it to cook your burgers: Charcoal has been everywhere lately—and we don’t just mean in your grill.
Activated charcoal—typically created through heating carbon-rich materials like peat, wood, coal, and even coconut shells at really high temperatures—has made its way into your grooming routine, popping up in skin care products and toothpaste.
Now it’s going one step further: into your food. Scroll through your Instagram feed, and you’ll see people eating and drinking the black stuff.
Black ice cream, lattes, lemonades, and even pancakes have become quite the photo-worthy trend, but they’re surging in popularity for reasons beyond their pleasing aesthetic. Various products, celebrities, and media outlets have mentioned activated charcoal’s health benefits, specifically concerning its ability to “cleanse” and “detoxify” your body.
But is; the black stuff really a magic health bullet? We were skeptical of the hype surrounding activated charcoal, so we consulted a few experts to decipher the claims.
How Activated Charcoal Affects Your Body
Prescription-grade activated charcoal is; actually used in poison control situations, says Robert Weber, R.Ph., Pharm.D., M.S., administrator of pharmaceutical services atThe Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
For instance, say you drink too much booze or pop too many pills. Your doctor might use activated charcoal to flush those life-threatening toxins from your body. Since it’s so porous, activated charcoal will work to absorb those active ingredients and pass them through your gastrointestinal system, he says.
But not only does it bind to the bad stuff in your stomach, it binds to the good stuff too, like essential nutrients from a healthy meal or even medications. That means you might not be able to absorb them properly. That can be risky, especially if you rely on something that requires a certain dosage, like blood pressure medication.
Plus, if you consume a significant amount of activated charcoal, there’s a chance you could become very constipated, since the charcoal can form hard substances in your intestines, so your waste will have a hard time passing through and out of your body.“That’s why we give patients potent laxatives when we give them activated charcoal in a poison control situation,” says Dr. Weber.
Activated charcoal has also been hyped for its potential to lower your cholesterol, minimize gas, and prevent hangovers, but there simply isn’t enough scientific evidence to support those claims, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Should You Eat Activated Charcoal?
The medicinal purpose of activated charcoal is; to treat poisoning. But it’s hard to tell whether the black stuff in your food or lattes is; actually the same or similar to the prescription-grade compounds used in the doctor’s office. That’s because many companies state that their activate charcoal is food-grade; but since that’s not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); it’s not really clear what—or how much—is exactly in them, says Dr. Weber.
So the activated charcoal you’re eating in your ice cream is; probably pretty different than what’s prescribed to treat poisoning. But if you aren’t being treated for an overdose, there’s really no reason to consume activated charcoal anyway.
“Unless you have a toxin in your stomach, you’re not really detoxifying yourself when using activated charcoal. You’re simply binding the current contents of your stomach up with the activated charcoal,”says Dr. Weber.
It’s no surprise that its powerful binding effect became synonymous with “detoxifying” your body. But there’s really no need to buy special products to detoxify your body in the first place; says Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.N., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer.
“Your liver and kidneys do it for you by breaking down toxins and flushing them out all day, every day,” she says.
If you’re truly concerned about it, load up on cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and Brussels sprouts; which are thought to help thwart possible cancer-causing compounds in your body; according to the National Cancer Institute.
“The best strategy of all is to focus on the big picture,” she says. “If you eat right everyday, you’ll never have to worry about detoxing.”