What Is Activated Charcoal? Health Benefits, Concerns And How To Use It

29/05/2015 16:46 BST | Updated 29/05/2015 16:59 BST

Once upon a time, charcoal was something reserved for the barbecue.

But as Neal's Yard Remedies natural health director Susan Curtis tells us, we’re now seeing a version of the substance, "activated charcoal", appear in our cold-press juices, supplements and our skincare regime.

Drinking activated charcoal is fast becoming a standard detox practice.

So, where has the sudden interest in the black stuff come from and more importantly, what impact does consuming activated charcoal have on our health?

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What Is Activated Charcoal?

"Activated charcoal is a bit like normal charcoal but it's burnt in the presence of gas," Jo Travers of The Harley Street Nutritionist tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

"This makes little pockets in the structure that allow other chemicals, gases or toxins room to be absorbed."

Nutritional drinks company Botanic Lab use charcoal made from coconut shells in one of their products.

The company's founder Rebekah Hall tells us charcoal has been used for hundreds of years in the medical profession "as a cure for various ailments".

"But it is currently having a resurgence in popular culture and the health and food markets," she adds.

"I would attribute this not only to its uses as a health product but also its colour, texture and the fact that it is quite unexpected in a food or drink."

Health Benefits

According to British Dietetic Association spokesperson, Elaine Allerton, activated charcoal is used in hospitals as a "useful therapeutic tool to treat oral poisoning".

"Activated charcoal binds to the poison in your stomach and thus prevents the drug being absorbed within the small intestine," she explains.

"The poison is then excreted via a bowel movement."

Travers adds that for this reason, activated charcoal can be an effective treatment for drug overdoses. However, she stresses the importance of calling an ambulance in the case of a drug overdose, rather than trying to use charcoal yourself.

Hall tells us activated charcoal also has everyday health benefits.

"We use activated charcoal that has been heated at a very high temperature and this significantly increases the surface area, making it more absorbent," she explains.

"Through absorption of toxins, activated charcoal is a natural gut cleanser. Nutrients, vitamins and minerals are either too large or don't bond with charcoal."

Consuming activated charcoal could also be beneficial to anyone who passes wind.

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority upheld the health claim that activated charcoal can reduce flatulence by absorbing excess gas from the intestines.

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Health Concerns

But not all is as it seems.

According to Allerton, activated charcoal can't tell the difference between nutrient and toxin.

"It will bind to everything in your stomach, which may put you at risk of nutrient malabsorption," she says.

“Activated charcoal may also interact with prescribed drugs, affecting the absorption of your medication and making them less effective. You are advised to check drug interactions with your GP or pharmacist."

Allerton also advises against using charcoal as part of a detox, due to the fact that any detox "is not necessary".

"The body has built in mechanisms - using the skin, gut, liver and kidney - to remove waste and toxins," she says.

"To maintain optimal health, a balanced diet - including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, with wholegrain carbohydrates, lean meat, fish or bean/pulse protein alternatives and low fat dairy products - is the best and most sustainable approach."

On top of that, the European Food Safety Authority has said that while activated charcoal may reduce flatulence, there is "insufficient evidence" to support the health claim that it can help with bloating.

And... it can make your poo black.

How Do You Use It?

Until recently, activated charcoal was most commonly consumed in tablet form from a health food store.

But now in powder form, it can be added to smoothies and bakes easily.

"It doesn't have a flavour as such, just a texture. In that sense there isn't a flavour to disguise and we like to make a feature of the texture in the drink," Hall says.

Travers recommends you consume 1g of activated charcoal at least 30mins before you eat and another 1g an hour after, in order to get the anti-flatulence benefits.

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