What's the Deal with Activated Charcoal?

Until recently, images associated with activated charcoal bring to mind photos of a person brushing their teeth with black ooze reminiscent of the 1958 horror flick, The Blob (that was black, right?), or the lumpy bits that kept the fish tank from turning green. However, my curiosity was piqued when I started seeing it used more frequently in the kitchen.

This ice cream is the creation of Brendi Milloy @popsugarfood and the French macarons the handy work of @FancyFactory.it.

Photo credit: Brendi Milloy

Photo credit: FancyFactory.it

Is activated charcoal (AC) just a unique way to color food jet black, or are there other benefits or risks? After digging a little through scientific journals, the most noted internal use of AC is in emergency situations to counter toxic over-doses, including alcohol poisoning. Activated charcoal is made by heating regular charcoal in the presence of a gas which results in a lot of internal “pores” that effectively “trap” chemicals. However, the effectiveness of AC to bind and remove toxins lessens with time and must be weighed against the dangers.

At least one clinical study indicated a cholesterol lowering effect, but follow-up research has been inconsistent. Another study showed a reduction in intestinal gas if taken one hour prior to a gas-inducing meal along with a large glass of water, followed by another large glass of water immediately after the meal. Generally, it's not recommended to drink that much water with a meal because it dilutes the hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which can delay digestion. These studies on AC and intestinal gas reduction are dated and current studies repeating these findings appear nonexistent.

New research is being conducted on the effectiveness of AC to treat cholestasis, a condition of pregnancy which affects the normal flow of bile. More studies are needed however, to prove effectiveness and safety. Several unsubstantiated claims have been made about the use of AC, such as helping to prevent cavities, bad breath, gum disease, an insect-bite and body odor remedy, a treatment for acne, a digestive cleanse, an anti-aging ingredient helping to prevent cellular damage to liver and kidneys, the ability to increase immune and mental function, increase energy and reduce joint pain. Clinical research supporting these claims has not been conducted.

The risks of using AC, particularly if used on a regular basis, should be considered carefully and discussed with your physician before use. What makes AC a useful toxin binder, also means it interferes with the absorption of other drugs, chemicals, minerals and vitamins. If taken with medications used for constipation, electrolyte imbalances and other problems may result. A google search on AC dosage recommendations for adult anti-flatulence is anywhere from 25mcg to 100g. If you decide to indulge in the two-scoop waffle cone above, you'll likely be consuming 20g. Pop a macaron on top and that's another 5g. If you're not drinking any water with this (who drinks water with their ice cream??) you're likely to encounter some gastrointestinal problems at least, or some malabsorption issues at worst.

Weighing the potential benefits against the risks, I think I’ll pass on using this ingredient in my culinary creations, particularly in the quantities used for these two creations.

Oh, and AC will stain anything it touches… another check on the “cons” side.

NOTE: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) treats dietary supplements (AC capsules or powder) like food rather than medication. This means it should be listed as an ingredient on a food label if used as a coloring agent, however supplement manufacturers are not required to show their products are effective or even safe before selling them to the public. If you’re taking medications and are tempted by an ink black macaron or even a macaroon, you may want to check the ingredient label carefully.

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