Move over, bone broth, there’s a new drink in town. Several juice bars, including New York City’s Juice Generation and LuliTonix, have recently started offering drinks containing activated charcoal. What does this mean? Is the stuff you put in your backyard grill now going in your juice?
This in-demand ingredient is touted as a hangover cure, detox wonder, beauty aid, and anti-gas agent. And the murky color it adds hasn’t put customers off; on the contrary, Juice Generation reports that it's the company's best-selling juice. So, naturally, we wanted to find out if any of these claims were true before we handed over $10 for a bottle.
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal (AC) is made using a two-step process. First, regular ol’ charcoal is created by superheating materials like coconut shells, wood, or peat. Then, the charcoal is exposed to hot air, creating tons of teeny-tiny holes in the charred material Activated charcoal for acute poisoning: One toxicologist's journey. Olson, K. R. Journal of Medical Toxicology: Official Journal of the American College of Medical Toxicology, 2010; 6:190-198. . Those holes increase the surface area of the charcoal to astounding levels—just 50 grams of activated charcoal can have a surface area the size of seven football fields. That broad surface area acts as a “sticky” trap for a bunch of different molecules and chemicals Activated Charcoal for Acute Poisoning: One Toxicologist's Journey. Olson, K. R. Journal of Medical Toxicology: Official Journal of the American College of Medical Toxicology, 2010; 6:190-198. .
The Health Claims
Activated charcoal fans point to the fact that it can scoop up other molecules as evidence that it detoxifies the body. They believe toxins and impurities will easily latch onto charcoal’s “stickiness” rather than remaining in the digestive tract or on skin.
It’s that belief that’s made charcoal is a common ingredient in supplements and skincare products. AC supplements have been marketed to help relieve gas, lower cholesterol, and cure hangovers. And several skincare companies sell AC-infused facial masks, cleansers, and pore strips with promises that the activated charcoal will draw out impurities, leaving skin clear and glowing.
It wasn’t long before juice bars jumped on the AC bandwagon. Juice Generation plays up AC’s purported beautifying properties, marketing its AC-containing juices as “Beauty Boosters." Other juice companies, such as L.A.-based Juice Served Here, emphasize the detoxifying potential of AC. They maintain that activated charcoal will draw out anything icky lurking in the digestive tract.
The Scientific Evidence
However, when you take a look at the science, a lot of these claims turn to ash. AC is great for things like chemical cleanup in the environment, but that doesn’t translate to your body, says air quality specialist Claire Kwiatkowski. “People ingest this hoping to get rid of generic ‘toxins’ in the body, but the concentrations of toxins, if present, would not be sufficient for activated charcoal to be effective."
True, some doctors treat oral overdoses of certain chemicals and poisons with AC. Yet there’s no solid evidence that administering a dose of AC improves patient outcomes—more research needs to be done—and routine administration of AC to poisoned patients is not recommended Position paper: Single-dose Activated Charcoal. Chyka, P. A., Seger, D., Krenzelok, E. P., et al. Clinical Toxicology, 2005; 43:61-87. . It also can’t work on just any random pollutant (like pesticides or secondhand smoke). Only certain chemicals (alcohol not included) can stick to AC, and only things you ingested within the last few hours The Role of Activated Charcoal and Gastric Emptying in Gastrointestinal Decontamination: A State-of-the-Art Review. Bond, G. R. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 2002; 39:273-286. .
Plus activated charcoal doesn’t discriminate between bad and good: If it’s the right chemical structure, another molecule will stick to AC, whether it’s a poison, a beneficial drug, or a nutrient The Effect of Food and Ice Cream on the Adsorption Capacity of Paracetamol to High Surface Activated Charcoal: In Vitro Studies. Hoegberg, L. C., Angelo, H. R., Christophersen, A. B., et al. Pharmacology & Toxicology, 2003; 93:233-237. . So adding charcoal to your kale juice may block good-for-you nutrients from being absorbed by your body. That’s $10 down the toilet.
While slathering on a charcoal-based facial cleanser or drinking charcoal-containing juice probably won’t do you too much harm, there doesn’t appear to be a clear benefit for the everyday use of activated charcoal. In fact, consuming AC with food or taking it with medications or supplements may decrease the amount of nutrients or active ingredients available to your body. So while this black juice may be the new black, it’s on par with many other detox regimes in terms of ineffectiveness and expense.