Activated charcoal is latest entry in long list of food fads
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.