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The charcoal smoothie: a trend with benefits?

The charcoal smoothie: a trend with benefits?

Just because something looks disgusting, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you

Just because something looks disgusting, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you

Rachel Lloyd | July 31st 2018

Growing up, my siblings and I enjoyed creating strange games and eating strange things. My sister swallowed coins, while one brother opted for sticks. I was found by the fireplace, aged two, with dust all over my hands and face, gleefully shoving a piece of charcoal into my mouth.

I was not a dunce, it turns out, but ahead of my time. In recent years, charcoal has been hailed as a “surprising superfood” that will “detoxify” your gut, prevent hangovers, whiten your teeth, buff away your acne…and make flying a more pleasant experience. A paper entitled “Flatulence on Airplanes: Just Let It Go”, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2013, suggested airlines insert charcoal in the seats to “to absorb odours from intestinal gases”. Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website, recommends charcoal lemonade and charcoal chai. On Instagram, there are thousands of pictures of inky lattes, smoothies that could be pond water and scoops of ice-cream that look like glistening balls of tar.

Charcoal has been used medicinally for thousands of years, ingested as a “cure” for all sorts of ailments and dusted over wounds to stop them from smelling. People realised that charcoal’s absorptive properties made it an antidote to poison. In the early 19th century, a French scientist, Pierre-Fleurus Touéry, took 10 times the fatal dose of strychnine, combining it with an equal amount of charcoal. He survived unscathed. Britain’s National Health Service still recommends activated charcoal (the processed kind, rather than what you would find after a bonfire) for people who have overdosed on drugs or swallowed poison.

Possibly because of its ability to absorb poison, charcoal has long been associated with everyday gut health. JL Bragg is the only licensed pharmaceutical manufacturer of activated charcoal in Britain. It recommends its products – their makeup “essentially unchanged” since the company was founded in 1848 – for wind, bloating and upset stomachs. In glowing testimonials, customers report how charcoal tablets have relieved their symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

But some nutritionists are sceptical about charcoal being a one-tablet-fits-all digestive wonder cure. “Sometimes it happens that someone comes to see me and they say that they have found charcoal particularly helpful to alleviate gas and bloating,” Petronella Ravenshear, of Chelsea Nutrition, tells me. “But I’d be more likely to recommend digestive enzymes and perhaps a change in diet.”

Still intrigued, and after a quick fix for that post-lunch slump, I buy myself some charcoal pills from a health-food shop. I’m instructed to take them six times a day, before and after every meal. That sounds excessive – and likely to turn my innards black – so I look for advice online. One website recommends 12 a day (four after each meal), while another says two should do the trick. I aim for three day, and continue to feel my usual bloated self.

Charcoal in juice form seems more straightforward, so I head to Pret a Manger to buy a “Charcoal Shot” – a bottle of liquid the colour of city sludge, which contains activated charcoal mixed with apple, lemon and coconut water. It has a pleasingly bitter flavour but afterwards a gritty texture lingers on my tongue and teeth. I have a Charcoal Shot three days in a row, and each time half-expect it to turn me into a new woman, emerging from a shower of stars like a Disney princess. The bloat remains.

When I tell other people about my experiment, they come forward with their own anecdotes. My sister, whose digestive issues stem entirely from her denial of her gluten intolerance, volunteers: “I’ve tried charcoal to help with wind. Can verify that it did not help.” A friend says that after a night of extremely heavy drinking she was offered a charcoal tablet to stave off the hangover. It didn’t work and, worse still, her vomit was black.

HealthyButSmart.com, a website that helps people make evidence-based decisions about their health, has analysed 159 studies of activated charcoal published over the last 30 years. Its team found “no credible scientific evidence” to suggest that it helps with any of the myriad problems it is recommended for. “I don’t believe we need to [eat] charcoal unless we’ve actually been poisoned by something,” says Daniel O’Shaughnessy, aka The Naked Nutritionist. He thinks that people see charcoal as a quick fix and that they would do better to focus on improving their diet and lifestyle. His advice? “Just eat more broccoli.”