What is activated charcoal and is it safe?

BY: Kerry Torrens,BBC
What is activated charcoal and is it safe?

Is it safe to eat activated charcoal, what is it used for, and are there side effects or benefits to it? We closely examine this trendy food supplement.

Activated charcoal is everywhere. It's added to face masks, whitening toothpastes and sold to be consumed in tablet, capsule and powder form.

This trendy food supplement claims to cleanse us of toxins, beat bloating and even cure a hangover, but what is it and is it worthy of all the hype?

What is activated charcoal?

Although it sounds like something you’d use to fire up the barbecue, activated charcoal is the latest ‘detox’ trend.

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It’s typically made from carbon-containing material, like wood, that is heated at high temperatures to create charcoal, then oxidised – a process known as “activation”.

Activated charcoal has lots of small holes in its surface, increasing its surface area and making it more porous.

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It’s this sponge-like property that allows activated charcoal to soak up a variety of chemical and it’s why you may see it used in filtration products, including water filters.

What is activated charcoal used for?

Activated charcoal has a long history of use in emergency medicine for the treatment of drug overdose or accidental poisoning.

Administering the charcoal promptly and at sufficient doses allows it to bind with certain drugs or poisons, reducing their absorption in the gut and minimising the detrimental effects on the patient.

Recently, we’ve seen an increase in ‘detox’ health products containing activated charcoal, claiming impressive benefits like the ability to reduce bloating and flatulence, cleanse your system and even whiten your teeth.

There’s no scientific evidence to support these or other claims.

Moreover, the amount of charcoal added to something like a ‘detox juice’ is likely to be at best aesthetic (making for an eye-catching Instagram post) to enhance its marketing value.

Is it safe to eat activated charcoal?

To date there have been no studies looking at the effects of long-term use at the levels likely to be present in over-the-counter ‘health’ and ‘detox’ products.

Most experts believe that ingesting charcoal at such low levels should present few side effects.

Although, if you rely on prescription medication, taken by mouth, you should be aware that taking activated charcoal may make your medication less effective, as it may prevent the active compounds from being properly absorbed.

Ironically, while activated charcoal does bind well to some compounds, such as particular poisons and medications, it doesn't bind well with alcohol, so those hoping for a hangover cure may be disappointed.

Most of the studies examining the use of activated charcoal focus on poisoning and many others are limited in quality due to the small number of study participants.

Even where there are positive findings, for example for reducing flatulence, there is conflicting evidence.

Some studies report positive results confirming that at recommended levels activated charcoal may help remove excess gas from the gut while others report no effect.

An area we don’t fully understand is how activated charcoal reacts with other nutrients.

It may bind with beneficial nutrients especially the water-soluble vitamins (like vitamin C) making them less available, which sadly makes 'healthy' juices combined with activated charcoal a tad less beneficial than they may first appear.

So is activated charcoal healthy?

Activated charcoal and its effects are limited to your gut so, regardless of what the marketing hype tells you, your ‘detox’ juice cannot absorb toxic materials from other areas of the body.

There’s no evidence supporting the regular consumption of activated charcoal as either beneficial or helpful.

What’s more, the idea that you need additional support to help your body remove everyday toxins to stay healthy is a myth.

In a typically healthy person, detoxification is very effectively done by the body via organs like the liver and kidneys and is not aided by detox juices, smoothies or supplements.

However, if you are on prescription medication, you would be well advised to avoid or at the very least, consume with caution, because activated charcoal may make that medication less effective.