The Fad of Drinking Charcoal…(June 2017)
Did the title catch you by surprise? No, you did not read it incorrectly! The latest fad in the health and nutrition sphere is, indeed, drinking charcoal. I first learned of this several months ago when a client told me that she bought a bottle of Charcoal Lemonade (www.juiceservedhere.com). I had never heard of such a fad! My initial thoughts were: how long would this fad be around? What is the objective of this beverage? How safe is drinking charcoal? It is my job to understand nutrition fads and educate my clients on their true benefits, and drawbacks. Upon hearing of this new trend, I was surprised and skeptical and, obviously, felt I had to learn more.
I think it is important to make clear from the beginning that I do not believe in indulging in fads or “quick fixes.” Many of the clients and clinicians I work with can attest to the fact that I strongly believe that there are no shortcuts for drinking water or obtaining energy. I live my own life by this principal and recommend my clients do as well. As such, I also recommend against engaging in detoxes or cleanses. The trend of drinking charcoal has been recommended in Western medicine as just those, a way to “detox” our body from alcohol, metals or any other substance that one is trying to remove from their diet. In my opinion, changing our relationship with food would be the ideal way to approach living a healthier and happier life. However, people may find it important to say they have tried the next “trend du jour.” What I think is important to emphasize is that education must always precede any dietary change. Therefore, I want to enable my readers with some information on this particular trend so that you can make evidence-based decisions regarding your health.
Let’s start with a discussion of how activated charcoal is created as well as how it works. Activated charcoal is produced by heating wood to high temperatures and then oxidizing it, resulting in almost pure carbon. The final product is a very large surface area that can absorb various chemicals to its surface. When ingested, the charcoal isn’t absorbed into the body; however, its remains in the gastrointestinal tract then help to prevent the absorption of toxic poisons or drugs.
This trend took on massive popularity when Gwyneth Paltrow mentioned charcoal lemonade on her website. The lemonade is made with alkali water and sweetened with cane sugar. Such simple ingredients, and yet it costs $8 just for one 15 oz. bottle. The site claims that the lemonade will remove toxins from foods that contain GMOs, preservatives and additives. This sounds helpful and appealing, however, registered dietitians are aware of the truth here: our bodies are able to get rid of these toxins on their own via the liver, kidneys, lymphatic system and skin. We don’t need a beverage to assist with this. There is no scientific evidence to back up the claims that charcoal further assists the already natural bodily processes at play in getting rid of these toxins.
Another problem I have found is that ingesting activated charcoal removes nutrients from our food, making it less nutritious. In 2004, the Journal of Food Quality published a study that looked into the effects of ingesting activated charcoal in conjunction with apple juice. The study showed that there was a reduced amount of vitamins absorbed from the juice, such as Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Thiamine, and Biotin, when combined with activated charcoal.
As a nutrition therapist, I always like to understand the reasons my client is interested in trying something new. Nutrition trends can be particularly dangerous because they always assert that they are better than other trends because they are “all natural” and “work with the body.” Many people give into these trends because there doesn’t seem to be any harm in doing so. It is important to remember that the body is already an incredibly resilient and efficient machine. Much of what nutrition trends claim to do are already being done by your body every day. We must work hard to be conscious consumers and educate ourselves on the true benefits of these trends so that we don’t fall into expensive, unnecessary, and, sometimes, unhealthy nutrition habits.
- Kadakal C, Poyrazoglu ES, Artik N, NAS S. Effect of activated charcoal on water-soluble vitamin of apple juice. Journal of Food Quality. 2004; 27(2):171-180.