Ac­ti­vated char­coal is lat­est en­try in long list of food fads

The Tribune (SLO) - - Health & Weather - BY EVE GLAZIER, M.D., and EL­IZ­A­BETH KO, M.D. Send your ques­tions to ask­the­do­c­[email protected] med­, or write: Ask the Doc­tors, c/o Me­dia Re­la­tions, UCLA Health, 924 West­wood Blvd., Suite 350, Los An­ge­les, CA, 90095.

Dear Doc­tor: I read that New York re­cently banned some­thing called ac­ti­vated char­coal from all food and bev­er­ages. What is that?

Dear Reader: The his­tory of food fads is as long as it is strange. Lord By­ron, the Bri­tish poet and politi­cian, was so en­am­ored of vine­gar as a cu­ra­tive that he made it the cor­ner­stone of his diet and sparked a wide­spread fad. In the 1830s, Amer­i­cans were urged to eat a bland diet an­chored by gra­ham crack­ers to cool their sex drives. And in the Vic­to­rian era, women downed pills that sup­pos­edly con­tained a tape­worm egg (they prob­a­bly didn’t) so the par­a­site would take care of any ex­cess calo­ries.

Now comes ac­ti­vated char­coal. The sub­stance is made by heating car­bon­rich ma­te­ri­als like wood, peat or co­conut shells to ex­tremely high tem­per­a­tures. The re­sult­ing char­coal is then ground up and stripped of ex­tra­ne­ous mol­e­cules, which cre­ates ul­tra-fine par­ti­cles full of holes and crevices. These in­crease the sur­face area of each minute par­ti­cle, which makes avail­able thou­sands of po­ten­tial bind­ing sites. Thus “ac­ti­vated,” the char­coal can now at­tract mol­e­cules, ions or atoms, mak­ing it a highly effective pu­ri­fier.

When added to food ac­ti­vated char­coal trans­forms the fa­mil­iar color pal­ette of white, beige and brown to a star­tling dark black. From ice cream, smooth­ies and sauces to burger buns, bev­er­ages and pizza crust, an ev­er­grow­ing range of ev­ery­day ed­i­bles is get­ting the ac­ti­vated char­coal treat­ment.

Due to its abil­ity to ab­sorb im­pu­ri­ties, ac­ti­vated char­coal has been as­signed a wide range of health ben­e­fits, not all of them ac­cu­rate. Some an­i­mal stud­ies have sug­gested that ac­ti­vated char­coal may re­duce cer­tain dam­age as­so­ci­ated with chronic kid­ney dis­ease. Claims that ac­ti­vated char­coal will clear the body of tox­ins or de­crease bad breath re­main un­proven.

The same ab­sorbent prop­er­ties that make ac­ti­vated char­coal effective for poi­son con­trol can also in­ter­fere with the ab­sorp­tion of med­i­ca­tions. It can also cause con­sti­pa­tion.

Last spring, the Depart­ment of Health in New York City banned the use of ac­ti­vated char­coal in com­mer­cial food and drink. Health of­fi­cials in San Fran­cisco are also look­ing into ad­dress­ing the trend. Ad­vo­cates of ac­ti­vated char­coal have pledged to push back. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what hap­pens next.

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