Is ac­ti­vated char­coal good for you?

Cosmos - - Contents - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

POP INTO A HEALTH- FOOD store and you’ll be in­vited to eat or drink some­thing called “ac­ti­vated char­coal”. Do­ing so is good, you’ll be told, and here we quote US prod­uct booster Dr Axe, be­cause it will “trap tox­ins and chem­i­cals in the body, al­low­ing them to be flushed out so the body doesn’t re­ab­sorb them”.

Is this claim true, or is ac­ti­vated char­coal just the lat­est fad in­tended mainly to flush out your wal­let?

Well, the prod­uct is spruiked on Gwyneth Pal­trow’s Goop web­site, wherein the film-star – and, to quote The Guardian, pur­veyor of “anti-science, anti-fact garbage” – rec­om­mends its in­clu­sion in chai, drink­ing wa­ter, bath bombs, tooth­paste and sk­in­care prod­ucts, so that should send up red flags.

Like most health fad favourites, how­ever, ex­trav­a­gant claims for its ef­fi­cacy rest on a sliver of truth.

Since Hip­pocrates, char­coal has been an emer­gency treat­ment in cases of poi­son­ing. The me­chan­ics are sim­ple. When the char­coal is put into a per­son’s stom­ach, it sucks in mol­e­cules from the poi­son, pre­vent­ing them be­ing ab­sorbed into the blood­stream.

For more than a cen­tury, its ef­fi­cacy has been in­creased by first heat­ing it to 900 de­grees Cel­sius and then sub­ject­ing it to ei­ther car­bon diox­ide or steam. This cre­ates an in­ter­nal pore struc­ture that boosts its abil­ity to ab­sorb nas­ties. In this form, it is said to be “ac­ti­vated”.

So, if it’s been proven to work in hospi­tal emer­gency de­part­ments on sub­stances such as ar­senic, why shouldn’t it also work to clean out other things, such as at­mo­spheric soot, fast food burg­ers, or that stuff that floats on top of the turmeric lat­tes that Gwyneth also likes to rec­om­mend?

Well, be­cause it doesn’t. For a start, the big black ac­ti­vated char­coal pills you buy in stores only con­tain about 250 mil­ligrams of the stuff. The US Na­tional Cap­i­tal Poi­son Cen­ter says that “to pro­vide the same dose given in the emer­gency room could re­quire hun­dreds of tablets”.

Time is also a fac­tor. Emer­gency char­coal only works if it’s ad­min­is­tered within an hour of the poi­son be­ing in­gested. The same ap­plies for home (or café) use. Us­ing it to ab­sorb tox­ins from your break­fast muf­fin or last night’s beer binge is point­less.

Mind you, the char­coal doesn’t care. It doesn’t discriminate and will ab­sorb what­ever it en­coun­ters. This in­cludes med­i­ca­tions. Down­ing a char­coal shot – avail­able on­line for just $5.50 – could do se­ri­ous dam­age if you use it to wash down pre­scrip­tion pills.

Mostly, how­ever, ac­ti­vated char­coal nat­u­ral health prod­ucts are sim­ply a waste of money. This is not to say they have no ef­fects what­so­ever. They do. They cause nau­sea. And they turn poo ex­tra-sludgy and black. Which is some­thing Gwyneth doesn’t talk about very of­ten.

Phillip Faraone / Getty Images

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