The black and white ben­e­fits of ac­ti­vated char­coal

IT’S THE NEW FOOD FAD AMONG THE IN­STA CROWD, BUT ARE ITS HEALTH BEN­E­FITS SO BLACK AND WHITE?

Good Health Choices - - Content -

Pho­tos of black-tinged burg­ers, coal-coloured smoothie bowls and inky-toned ice cream quickly drum up likes on so­cial me­dia, but what is this dark pow­dery stuff that has ev­ery­one talk­ing? It’s called ac­ti­vated char­coal, and it’s burst onto the well­ness scene with gusto. Black and sandy with an ic­ing sugar con­sis­tency, ac­ti­vated char­coal isn’t just ap­pear­ing in our food. It’s now on the shelf at your lo­cal health shop, and it’s also turn­ing up in the toi­letries aisle, in prod­ucts in­clud­ing tooth­paste and face masks.

Whether you choose to eat it in a burger or squeeze it on your tooth­brush, the idea is the same – that the char­coal binds to tox­ins, ei­ther in the gut or on the body, which in the­ory can as­sist with our nat­u­ral detox­ing pro­cesses.

It’s typ­i­cally made from co­conut shells, bam­boo or other ma­te­ri­als con­tain­ing car­bon, heated to a high tem­per­a­ture to trans­form it to char­coal, and then ox­i­dised, or ‘ac­ti­vated’. In its raw form be­fore it’s ground into the pow­der we see in health stores, ac­ti­vated char­coal has a por­ous, sponge-like tex­ture, and it’s these tiny holes that are thought to boost its fil­tra­tion ef­fects.

De­spite the re­cent at­ten­tion, ac­ti­vated char­coal as a mod­ern health aid isn’t ex­actly new – it’s long been used in med­i­cal set­tings to treat drug over­doses and poi­son­ing, as the bind­ing prop­er­ties of the char­coal hin­der the ab­sorp­tion of cer­tain tox­ins in the gut. But its lat­est in­car­na­tion as a well­ness prod­uct isn’t with­out its crit­ics. Here, we look at both sides of the story.

A nifty health fix?

While there are few sci­en­tific stud­ies on the ben­e­fits of ac­ti­vated char­coal in food, fans say its fil­ter­ing and bind­ing power has anti-age­ing prop­er­ties, can help to lower choles­terol, and re­duce the tox­ins that lead to gas­tro up­sets and

char­coal binds to tox­ins, which can as­sist with detox­ing

bloat­ing. It was also a pop­u­lar well­ness booster in Ayurvedic and tra­di­tional Eastern medicine, where it was used to whiten teeth and cleanse the body of mould spores.

These days, it’s the celebrity en­dorse­ments that have brought ac­ti­vated char­coal back into the main­stream, with the likes of

Gwyneth Pal­trow, Kim Kar­dashian and Kate Hud­son singing the praises of the black pow­der. But de­spite the hype, it’s hard to find sci­en­tific proof that ac­ti­vated char­coal ac­tu­ally works.

In one 2012 study, a small group of vol­un­teers, all with a his­tory of in­testi­nal is­sues, were asked to take ac­ti­vated char­coal tablets three times a day for two con­sec­u­tive days. Re­searchers then did an ul­tra­sound which re­vealed the gas­troin­testi­nal tract of each vol­un­teer was far clearer than be­fore they took the char­coal, with less of the en­zymes that cause gas and bloat­ing.

A 2017 study recorded in the med­i­cal jour­nal, PLOS One, also noted the po­ten­tial for ac­ti­vated char­coal to help re­duce bloat­ing. In the 10-day study, vol­un­teers who took ac­ti­vated char­coal three times a day all re­ported less ab­dom­i­nal dis­com­fort, and re­searchers hailed the re­sults as “promis­ing”.

A gim­micky fad?

So far, there’s no ev­i­dence to prove that us­ing ac­ti­vated char­coal out­side of pro­fes­sional med­i­cal use ab­sorbs tox­ins, and many ex­perts say the small amount in­cluded to colour smooth­ies, ice cream and bread is un­likely to have an im­pact on pol­lu­tants in the body.

In med­i­cal set­tings, ac­ti­vated char­coal does have an ef­fect in the gut, how­ever it only binds to cer­tain poi­sons and med­i­ca­tions, rather than a broad range of tox­ins. It’s been touted as a hang­over cure, but again, this is too good to be true. There’s a rea­son why emer­gency room doc­tors don’t treat al­co­hol poi­son­ing with char­coal – it’s use­less where al­co­hol is con­cerned.

And the other is­sue is, while ac­ti­vated char­coal can ‘suck up’ cer­tain mol­e­cules in its path, it can’t dis­tin­guish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ com­pounds. So that pricey char­coal fruit juice you thought was loaded with vi­ta­min C? It might be more coloured wa­ter than nu­tri­ent elixir. Ev­i­dence sug­gests ac­ti­vated char­coal can also bind to cer­tain vi­ta­mins, like cal­cium and potas­sium, greatly re­duc­ing their ef­fi­cacy in the body.

The same goes for cer­tain med­i­ca­tions, and ac­ti­vated char­coal can re­duce the ef­fec­tive­ness of ibupro­fen, as well as some birth con­trol pills, an­ti­in­flam­ma­to­ries, and asthma med­i­ca­tions.

When it comes to eat­ing ac­ti­vated char­coal with your lunch, it seems that black-hued food won’t harm you, but it prob­a­bly won’t be the an­swer to your health woes ei­ther. As with many DIY detox reme­dies, the gen­eral con­sen­sus from the med­i­cal world is that for most healthy peo­ple, the body does a great job at detox­i­fy­ing it­self al­ready, no black smooth­ies re­quired.

Vol­un­teers re­ported less ab­dom­i­nal dis­com­fort

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