Charcoal’s Black Magic

From beauty masks to ice cream, is the latest health fad more than it’s chalked up to be?

Charcoal Bowl And Spoon

One glance at any of the latest jet-black culinary and beauty products featuring charcoal and it becomes clear that this carbon compound is not just for grilling anymore. It is now one of the hottest trending ingredients in everything from pancakes and lemonade to shampoos, facial masks, and deodorants. Yes, the drinks and fare are actually consumable and tasty, and the cosmetic and toiletry items can yield some pleasing results.

The charcoal used in these products is obviously not the kind that ignites a barbecue—full of toxins and absolutely unsafe for consumption. The component used in the edible and topical creations is known as activated charcoal.

Manufactured from burnt coconut shells or wood species with ultra-fine grains, activated charcoal is triggered by exposure to certain gases at high temperatures. The end result allows the charcoal to bind with the elements it comes in contact with, absorbing and trapping toxins and chemicals in its millions of tiny pores, according to Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, a certified doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic, and clinical nutritionist.

Rolled Charcoal Potato Balls

Rolled charcoal potato balls.

Medical professionals have used activated charcoal since the 1900s as a detoxifying agent in certain cases of poisoning or drug overdose. The notion caught on with the beauty industry and soon companies began touting the purification properties of charcoal-packed products, claiming they bind to oils and dirt to clear skin, clean hair, whiten teeth, and more. The charcoal craze also infiltrated the epicurean domain, with gourmet restaurants, chic bars, and snack and juice cafés offering jet-black concoctions. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Pinterest have blown up with striking photos of intriguing edible options that span the gamut from the mundane to the exotic: mac-and-cheese, smoothies, gyoza, challah, alcoholic cocktails, waffles, wedding cakes, lattes, Rice Krispies treats, and the list goes on.

When Little Damage, a Los-Angeles-based ice cream shop known for its unconventional flavors, wanted to introduce a unique, new ingredient on its menu, it gave charcoal a swirl, offering both black ice cream and waffle cones to rave reviews. “People are drawn to the color and surprised to find out the ingredient that gives it the distinct color is activated charcoal,” says Jenny Damage, manager/owner. “It’s become a sensation and people have labeled it ‘goth’ ice cream. We love and embrace it!”

Charcoal Bread

Loaf of black, sesame-charcoal bread.

Charcoal’s remarkable appearance isn’t the only trait boosting its popularity. Touted for its claims to alleviate gas, lower cholesterol, whiten teeth, improve acne-prone skin, cure hangovers, detox the body, and much more, charcoal would seem to be a panacea. These claims, however, have materialized through a wonky combination of speculation, hypothesis, and marketing, playing to the public’s desire for quick fixes for any ails.

Activated charcoal is non-discriminatory, so while it may flush some impurities out of the body, it will also force vitamins and minerals—nutrients necessary in human metabolism—and medications to bind to it as well. Furthermore, “it would not make sense to begin using charcoal for purification or detoxification if the diet is still full of chemicals and contaminants,” explains Ilana Katz, MS, RD, CSSD, a licensed dietician in Atlanta, Georgia. Her first suggestion is to clean up one’s diet before deciding to put foreign matter into the body to counteract a bad diet.

Dr. Axe cautions that not all activated charcoal products on the market are created equal. “In the powdered form, many products have added artificial sweeteners to make them more palatable; avoid these. Artificial sweeteners are loaded with chemicals, and it doesn’t make sense to take activated charcoal to rid your body of chemicals and toxins if it’s loaded with chemicals.”

Side effects of activated charcoal can include constipation, black tongue and/or stools, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration as well as intestinal blockages and regurgitation from the lungs in serious cases. It can also decrease the efficacy of birth control, medications, and supplements or cause electrolyte imbalances and other drug-interaction problems.

While, generally, it has been deemed safe for short-term use, “the long-term side effects of using activated charcoal daily, weekly, or even monthly on nutrient absorption is largely unknown,” Katz adds. As with anything put into or on the body, by heeding precautions and living in moderation, it is possible to enjoy the mystifying charcoal-steeped products that are a vision to behold.

Sip on these charcoal concoctions to get a taste of the hype.

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