It is a far cry from my usual cup of coffee, but in the name of research, I’m dubiously sitting down to a glass of jet-black juice. The slightly sinister-looking liquid contains a single ingredient that’s responsible for turning it dark – activated charcoal. Known for its toxin- and poison-absorbing qualities, the “activated” variety is made by treating common charcoal at a very high temperature in the presence of gases such as argon and nitrogen. This causes it to develop lots of internal spaces or pores, which are supposed to bind toxins within the stomach and gastrointestinal tract so they can be more effectively eliminated from the body.
“It may be the latest detox trend, but it is far from new; its medicinal use dates back to 1550BC,” says Laura Holland, a Dubai-based nutritionist and founder of lifestyle coaching company BeU. “It is often administered after consumption of toxic substances in hospitals, and is said to absorb up to 60 per cent of any poisonous material present within the digestive system,” she says. This makes activated charcoal popular for a detox.
“Due to this apparent ‘magic cleansing’ quality, activated charcoal is often used during a detox to help rapidly rid the body of toxins, and people generally report a significant reduction in bloating and digestive complaints,” says Holland.
Activated charcoal is available in pill and powder form in health-food stores and pharmacies across the UAE. It has also been cropping up in juices such as the Black Lemonade I am sipping, created by home-grown brand Wild & The Moon in Dubai. I find the drink quite tasty. And the after-effects – frequent trips to the loo – made it feel like a cleanse.
The vegan cafe Wild & The Moon offers two charcoal-inspired concoctions – the lemonade contains activated charcoal alongside other cleansing ingredients such as apple cider vinegar and lemon, while the Black Gold drink blends charcoal with sprouted almonds, dates and vanilla, giving it a surprisingly tasty, ice-cream-like flavour.
“Activated charcoal is a very common natural remedy in France,” says Emma Sawko, co-founder of Wild & The Moon and Comptoir 102, a Dubai concept store and restaurant – both of which include menu items containing activated charcoal.
“My mother gave it to us as children when we were feeling ill, and I have it in my own store cupboard at home. It works like a sponge to soak up toxins, so it is very useful if, for example, you have food poisoning, have overindulged or are feeling bloated,” says the Parisian.
“Our chefs only use around a teaspoon of it in our juice recipes, so it is safe to drink on a regular basis. The fine black powder does not really taste or smell of anything, so it easily mixes with other ingredients.”
But before you rush out to scoop up some of this coal dust, Holland has a few words of advice. She says owing to its highly absorbent quality, activated charcoal, particularly in its more potent tablet form, does need to be consumed with care, at least two hours apart from any other medications and supplements. Side effects include black stools and at times, diarrhoea, vomiting or constipation.
In large doses, activated charcoal can also cause dehydration, so remember to drink plenty of water if you are taking it.
“In my opinion, it is not for long-term use on a daily basis, but rather as a powerful aid during a defined detoxification period,” says Holland. “I would not advise children to take it, unless prescribed by a doctor in the case of ingestion of poisonous substances. Pregnant ladies and individuals who have serious health problems should also avoid it.”
It is important to consult your doctor before considering any new supplement and talk to them about the dosage.
Adrienne Speedy, lead dietitian in the Clinical Dietetics department at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, says there is no proof that activated charcoal promotes digestive health.
“While activated charcoal is used in medical treatment for certain types of poisoning and overdose to prevent absorption into the body, there is no scientific evidence that currently supports its benefit for regular use in overall digestive health.”
5 uses for activated charcoal
Prescription: It is administered by doctors in cases of poisoning or drug overdose to help flush out toxins from the body.
In a drink: Due to its odourless, tasteless quality, the powdered form mixes easily with water and other ingredients and can be consumed as part of an organised detox or cleanse.
On your skin: Use it in a face pack or cleanser to help unclog pores and detoxify your skin.
Filtration: It is used in water filter systems worldwide to help draw impurities and chemicals out of the water.
Anti-itch: Treat a mosquito bite or bee sting by mixing one capsule of activated charcoal with half a tablespoon of coconut oil, and dab a small amount on the affected area. Repeat every 30 minutes until the itching has eased.
Note: People with serious health concerns should consult a doctor before taking any new supplement. Also, activated charcoal can be messy and easily stains grouting, countertops and fabric, so make sure you protect surfaces before using it.