If you love cold-pressed juice for its vibrant, multicolor hue, you may be disappointed. The hottest beverage trend on the market is activated charcoal—charcoal that has been oxygenated with steam to make it super porous.
According to Dirty Lemon, a new detox beverage brand, just one gram of activated charcoal has a surface area of up to 2,000 square feet, allowing it to adsorb (yes, adsorb—when molecules gather on the surface of another substance) environmental toxins like pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and more. “Activated charcoal is highly binding, especially when ingested,” explains Lori Kenyon Farley, co-founder of Project Juice and certified nutrition consultant. “Since it has no taste, it can easily be included in a beverage to increase the detoxifying effects.”
Activated charcoal is not a new ingredient—for centuries it has been administered to people who ingested poison or who overdosed on drugs—especially within the first hour of poisoning. And it’s long been used for air and water purification. Your Brita water filter? Yup, that’s made with activated charcoal.
But as consumers continue to seek improved detox and cleansing products, a slew of cold-pressed raw beverage companies are blending powerful, flavorless activated charcoal with other ingredients (dandelion root, lemon juice, ginger) that stoke detox organs like your liver.
But do activated charcoal beverages truly help with detox?
The first thing to know about activated charcoal is that it can’t discern what it’s adsorbing—it removes the bad stuff (farming pesticides, VOCs) along with the good stuff (vitamins, minerals, fats). This is why brands warn users not to drink beverages with activated charcoal within five hours of consuming medications—it can render them less effective.
According to toxicology expert John Hibbs, ND, clinical supervisor at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, activated charcoal doesn’t just work in the stomach—when taken with food, the ingredient can also function in the small intestine by vacuuming up toxins released by the liver. “The liver excretes many poisons in a fluid called bile and stores the bile in the gall bladder,” Hibbs says. The gall bladder is uniquely designed to release the bile when food rushes into the small intestine, he adds. Charcoal in the small intestine may then bind to the toxins and flush them through the large intestine, ensuring they are not reabsorbed into the body.
Hibbs stresses, however, that eating more soluble and insoluble fiber sources such as whole grain brans, fruits and vegetables help detox in the same way and are probably more effective—a sentiment echoed by other natural health practitioners.
“I wish people would worry less about toxins and their effects on the body and more about being moderate, maintaining a low body fat percentage and exercising,” says Charlie Seltzer, MD, founder of Lean4Life. “A little ‘toxin’ … is much less dangerous than being sedentary and overweight.”
As for helping with hangovers? Probably not. Alcohol is metabolized by many different cells and organs—not just the liver—which makes it unlikely for charcoal to meaningfully soak up aldehyde, the compound that really makes you feel horrible.
What do you think about beverages with activated charcoal? Let us know in the comments below!