Traditionally a sure-fire sign that you’ve turned the toaster setting up too high, charcoal is now being seen in a whole new light.
It’s officially the ingredient of the moment and you don’t have to scroll through Instagram long to find pictures of charcoal lattes, black ice-cream or inky juices. But should we really be adding a side of burn to every dish?
Full disclosure: there’s a difference between the stuff you scrape off blackened toast and “activated” charcoal.
A supercharged version, the latter is made from things such as nutshells and coconut husks, which are activated either by heating (with argon or nitrogen) to 600 to 900°C or by exposure to a strong acid, such as phosphoric, heating to 450 to 900°C, then grinding to a powder.
Both activation processes create thousands of tiny holes across the substance, which increases its surface area, making it super adsorbent (nope, not a typo – it means it’s a pro at binding to other compounds).
It’s this magnet-like quality that has health-food lovers taking note. Why? It enables charcoal to help cleanse the skin from the inside out, improve gut health and pep you up. “Activated charcoal possesses a negative ionic charge,” explains nutritionist Tom Oliver.
“As most of the toxins, gases and pollutants in your body possess a positive ionic charge, the two naturally attract.”
Check out Nature’s Choice Activated Charcoal, R32, Faithful-To-Nature. Mix the powder with a cup of water and drink on an empty stomach or combine with coconut oil to make a cleansing facial scrub.
There’s solid science to warrant charcoal’s good rep. Since the 1980s, when research from the University of California Davis Medical Center in the US backed its ability to extract poison from the body, hospitals have used it during procedures such as post-overdose stomach pumping.
It’s also been shown to help bolster heart health. Experts from the University of Helsinki in Finland asked study participants to ingest varying amounts of activated charcoal three times a day over four weeks and saw their levels of bad cholesterol drop by 29 percent (due to it binding to the charcoal and being excreted from the body). Not too shabby.
You don’t need to be chewing blackened burger buns to benefit; simply add a stick of it to your water bottle and glug. “It’ll even act as a natural water filter at the same time,” says biochemist and nutritionist Pixie Turner.
“Active charcoal is good at removing chlorine, sediment and traces of heavy metals, which force your liver to work harder when processing them.” If anything, the downside to charcoal could be that it’s too damn good at its job.
Check out this EcoPlanet Bamboo Charcoal Filter, R159 for a pack of four, Faithful-To-Nature. These blackened bamboo rods filter water – simply dunk into a one-litre bottle of water. When they’re through, sprinkle onto pot plants or chuck into compost.
How it works
“When activated charcoal is mixed in with a food source, it binds with all the nutrients, not just the undesirables, like saturated fat,” says dietician Michelle McGuinness.
“Ingesting it along with foods high in fat or refined sugar doesn’t automatically make them healthier because, just as it may attach to those compounds, it may attach to and excrete valuable fibre or protein too.” Oh.
There’s also a worry that activated charcoal will absorb water from the food you’re eating and directly from your body. Cue dehydration or constipation.
Arguably, the biggest concern is charcoal’s propensity to bind to meds, rendering them null and void. In fact, a recent US petition insisted that activated charcoal ice-cream come with a warning.
“A charcoal latte may not necessarily contain enough activated charcoal to have a significant effect on absorption of medication,” says McGuinness. “But it’s something that people who consume higher levels, such as capsules, should be aware of.”
So, go black or turn back? The odd charcoal pasta or ice-cream shouldn’t do your body any harm, agree experts, but they’re not exactly health must-haves. “All you need to remove toxins from your body are your liver and kidneys,” says Turner. Our verdict? Fine for a treat, but don’t expect any miracles.
Check out Theonista Activated Charcoal & Lemon Kombucha, from R89 (1 litre), Wellness Warehouse. Activated charcoal made from coconut shells with probiotic-rich scoby make this kombucha the hippest drink around.
This article was originally published in Women's Health South Africa.