Is Activated Charcoal in Foods and Supplements Safe to Consume?


What is activated charcoal?

Activated charcoal is a type of charcoal that is processed at very high temperatures to make it more porous. Historically, it has been used in emergency departments to help treat drug overdoses or poisoning. Drugs and toxins bind to the charcoal, helping the body rid itself of the substances. However, the use of activated charcoal has recently expanded beyond emergency use.

Activated charcoal in food and supplements

Taking activated charcoal supplements or consuming foods or beverages containing activated charcoal is increasing in popularity with the hope of detoxing the body and treating various ailments, including excessive gas, hangovers, high cholesterol, and poor kidney function. Activated charcoal can now be found in beverages, particularly “detox” beverages. It is sometimes used simply for the aesthetic purpose of making a food or beverage black, e.g., certain cocktails, hamburger buns, and ice cream.

Possible side effects

Activated charcoal is generally considered safe, but it can have some side effects. The most common side effects are nausea, vomiting, constipation, and black stools. While the hope of consuming activated charcoal is to remove toxins, it can also remove important nutrients from the digestive tract, affecting the balance of gut bacteria.

Interference with medications

Activated charcoal should not be combined with medications used to treat constipation, such as sorbitol or magnesium citrate. This combination can lead to electrolyte imbalances in the body.

Most notably, activated charcoal may reduce the body’s absorption of certain medications, interfering with their effectiveness. Medications that may be affected include, but are not limited to, acetaminophen, tricyclic antidepressants, digoxin, and theophylline. For this reason, a healthcare provider should be consulted before taking an activated charcoal supplement or consuming foods or beverages containing activated charcoal.

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