If you've seen black foods pop up in your instagram feed or wondered what flavor that black lemonade was, it's charcoal. Activated charcoal is popping up in foods like juices, ciders and ice cream and also in supplement forms. Not to be confused with a briquette you throw on the barbecue—that you should never eat—this charcoal claims benefits for detoxing, easing gas and whitening teeth. But do they have merit? And is activated charcoal even safe?
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Let's start with detoxing. In an emergency, activated charcoal treats acute poisoning and drug overdoses. The charcoal binds to the poison so it doesn't get absorbed, explains Mark Olaf, D.O., emergency medicine physician in Danville, Pennsylvania. (Consult with a medical professional before using it to treat poisoning.) Some take this to mean that it helps your body eliminate everyday toxins, like pollution and processed food additives. Yet there isn't evidence to support taking activated charcoal regularly to improve your health or lessen your day-to-day toxic load.
For easing gas, the theory goes that activated charcoal will bind to gas-causing compounds in food, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D.N., manager of the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Nutrition Services and author of Skinny Liver. Several health blogs cite one study that found that taking activated charcoal before and after ingesting a laxative decreased gas. But it's from over 30 years ago, and there's no larger body of research to back it up. "One study is not going to convince me," Kirkpatrick says. Meanwhile, a small handful of studies show the opposite—activated charcoal failed to decrease gas.
Finally, anecdotes claim that smearing the black powder around your mouth improves your pearly whites, but the American Dental Association doesn't approve. No research shows it works. Plus, "some products with activated charcoal warn you not to brush or scrub too hard. My concern is that it might be abrasive," says spokesperson for the American Dental Association. Over time, abrasive products harm your enamel; once it's worn off, it's gone for good.
These claims don't have enough scientific backing to start popping charcoal supplements. Plus, there are risks, including constipation and diarrhea, and it can make some prescriptions less effective.
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