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Let’s be honest, the last time you came across any charcoal was probably at a DIY store or a family barbecue. But type charcoal into Google and these days you’ll doubtless find dozens of health food websites and fitness blogs talking about how “activated charcoal” is apparently the top new superfood, and a brilliant dietary supplement with all kinds of health benefits. So is it really worth all the fuss, or is it just a fad?

Active Charcoal


Needless to say the charcoal we’re talking about adding to your diet isn’t the same charcoal that you use to cook your burgers and your corn on the cob. So called “activated charcoal” or “active carbon” is a specially produced form of charcoal that, thanks to the way it’s made, has a mottled, porous surface covered in tens of thousands of tiny holes. Although they’re microscopically small, these holes work to increase the charcoal’s surface area by a massive amount. Imagine taking the white casing off a golf ball, flattening out all of the holes, and then trying to wrap it back around the ball. All that extra casing you’d have left over is the extra surface area—and activated charcoal has shedloads of it!



Without getting into too much of the scientific detail, the claim is that when you swallow activated charcoal, the holes and pores on its surface fill up with all the bad stuff from your body. Everything from the plaque on your teeth to dietary toxins and from artery-clogging cholesterol to bubbles of gas in your intestines—the holes on the charcoal hoover it all up. And because the charcoal itself can’t be digested by the body, it passes harmlessly out of your system taking all the bad stuff it has collected with it—leaving you thoroughly detoxed. In fact, so effective is charcoal at removing bad chemicals from your body that it was used to treat cases of poisonings way back in Ancient Greece, and is still used in the same way in emergency rooms the world over.



The precise health benefits of activated charcoal are a hot topic. The charcoal itself has no nutritional value, and because it passes through your system without being digested, it’s not particularly helpful as a dietary supplement. But it’s for its supposed ability to cleanse your system that charcoal has started to be considered a superfood. So are the claims true?


Well, some people will have you believe that it’s the miracle detoxifier we’ve all been waiting for—able to cure everything from irritable bowel syndrome to a hangover, and effective at treating everything from heart disease to insect bites. Others will have you believe that aside from saving your life in A&E if you’ve accidentally ingested something poisonous, charcoal is little more than a harmless placebo whose benefits to an everyday diet are massively over-exaggerated. Although research is still continuing, the truth seems to be somewhere in between the two.


The problem is that the charcoal doesn’t actively differentiate between the good and bad in your system. So, yes, it can remove toxins and excess gas from your body. But it can also remove the good stuff too, if that’s what happens to bind to the charcoal’s surface first. So all those over-eager drinks manufacturers who sell smoothies and fruit juices with activated charcoal in them might be doing little more than helping to reduce their nutritional content…


But that’s not to say that it isn’t without its benefits—it just means you have to be careful how you use it, when you use it, and how you choose add it to your daily routine. So how can you get the best out of it?



One popular way to use charcoal is as a teeth whitener or an intensive teeth cleaner. You can buy charcoal toothpastes online or in health food stores, or else you can try just dabbing a wet toothbrush into some activated charcoal powder and cleaning your teeth with it as you normally would. Rinse your mouth well with water afterwards, until the water you spit out is completely clear, and you should begin to notice a difference in just a few days. Be careful though: charcoal can stain, so avoid splashing the enamel or grout in your bathroom—and if you’ve got expensive crowns or veneers, needless to say this method might not be for you!


charcoal teeth


Some studies have shown that one of the most effective uses of charcoal is to stop you from getting bloated after a big meal. If you find yourself getting gassy after certain foods, over the counter charcoal tablets are a good bet here: these tablets will be specially coated to make sure they don’t start getting to work until they’re in the right place in your digestive system, reducing the chances of them removing the good stuff from your diet on the way down. You can track these tablets down in your local health food store, and take one after a meal for the most effective treatment. If you’re on prescription medication, of course, check with your doctor or pharmacist first to make sure there’ll be no problems adding charcoal to your diet.



As more and more research is carried out, ever more benefits of activated charcoal are being discovered. It’s possible that charcoal could help reduce cholesterol, support brain function and stave off degenerative conditions, and could even aid the body in processing the toxins that build up in your system when you’re hungover.


It all sounds very promising—but for the most part, the jury is still out on some of the other health benefits of activated charcoal, and until these claims are proved by dietary science, it’s best to take them with a pinch of salt. Or, as the case may be, a pinch of charcoal…

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