It’s safe to say activated charcoal is having a serious moment right now, popping up in everything from skincare and teeth whitening products to ice-cream, cocktails and lattes. And quite frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Not only does it look #edgychic in Instagram pics, but the substance is also said to have powerful detoxifying properties.
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But lately, activated charcoal has been creating a buzz in the wellness world for all the wrong reasons. We recently wrote about how food and drink products containing the substance have officially been banned in NYC. But meanwhile, it’s still currently available in countries around the world—including Australia. So, what’s the deal? Is activated charcoal safe for us to consume? Are we risking our lives ordering Instagrammable cocktails? Here, we find out.
Let’s start with the good (well, kind of). Yes, it is true that activated charcoal is a natural binding agent that helps draw out nasty stuff. In fact, it’s long been used in emergency rooms for this very reason. “It’s very absorbent, so it’s been used in the medical field for years in situations like poisoning or overdose,” Dr. Shilpi Agarwal told Well + Good. “We give patients activated charcoal because what it does is find everything in the stomach and absorb it before the body does and [the toxic chemicals] get into the bloodstream.”
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But here’s the thing—it doesn’t work quite the same way when you consume it in a cafe or bar. Firstly, activated charcoal can’t determine between good or bad: so it may draw out the good-for-you nutrients as well as toxins and chemical nasties. Secondly, the activated charcoal that goes into food or drink products isn’t medical grade. So, there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t even consume enough to experience that detoxifying effect in the first place.
Okay, so activated charcoal lattes aren’t exactly the health elixir they’ve been made out to be. But are they actually bad for us? Well, there are concerns. Firstly, as food grade activated charcoal isn’t regulated, you don’t know exactly where it’s coming from. While some companies source theirs from coconut shell or olive oil seeds, others get theirs from petroleum—which is obviously worrying.
Then, there’s the side effects. Not only can it soak up beneficial minerals in certain doses, activated charcoal has been said to interfere with vitamins, prescription medications and the contraceptive pill if digested within 30 minutes. Other potential side effects include constipation (as it’s a binding agent) and other digestive issues, as well as enamel abrasion when used in teeth whitening or toothpaste products.
At the end of the day, the amount of activated charcoal in your lattes and ice-cream isn’t likely to hurt you if you’re having them every now and again. But to be safe, it’s generally best to ask eateries where they source their activated charcoal from. And if you’re using it for the detoxifying benefits, you’re probably better off starting your day with lemon in warm water, or stocking up on more fresh veggies.