Activated charcoal: it’s everywhere! It’s in your cocktail. It’s in your latte. It’s in your ice cream. The dubious “detox” health claims now being peddled by your café or cocktail establishment might sound great, but what are you actually putting in your body when you consume your Goth latté/ice cream cone/cocktail? In reality, it turns out there’s no upside (beyond the Instagram likes), and a lot of potential downside, especially if you take any oral medications. We checked in with our resident medical expert Dr. Bill Copen and learned a lot that surprised us:
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal (AC) is industrially produced by exposing charcoal to steam or hot air. This erodes the charcoal, causing it to develop microscopic pores. This newfound porousness gives it a mind-bogglingly high surface area: a single gram of activated charcoal has the same surface area as 3-4 tennis courts! This is what makes it so effective at binding to other substances.
How Is It Used?
Activated charcoal has many uses: Filters containing AC are used in vodka production to trap and remove dissolved compounds that impart unwanted flavors. Doctors in emergency rooms use AC to treat patients who have swallowed poisons, or overdosed on oral medications. The drug or poison in a patient’s stomach binds to the surface of the AC, so it can’t be absorbed into a patient’s bloodstream. (Note: doctors usually use a much, much higher dose of AC for these purposes than what is normally found in a cocktail. Typical cocktail recipes indicate that approximately 280 – 1,700 milligrams of AC are used in one drink, vs. about 50 grams used by doctors to treat drug overdoses.)
What AC Doesn’t Do May Also Surprise You
Activated charcoal adsorbs almost zero alcohol. A drinker will not get any less drunk by consuming cocktails containing AC. And consuming AC will not prevent the body’s absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.
Most importantly: AC does not “purify”, “detox”, or “eliminate toxins” from one’s body, unless one is in the habit of eating poison regularly. (Please don’t do that!)
However, the issue with consuming food and drink containing AC is that it can have many unintended consequences, depending on the medications one is currently taking. Dear Reader, unless your bartender is also your primary care physician, she or he won’t have a clue what its impact might be on you. To wit: Studies have shown that AC is able to block absorption of many, many medications. Of the almost 50 drugs mentioned in this study, AC was able to significantly block absorption of almost every single one (including everything from acetaminophen to oral contraceptives). But AC can only adsorb what it can touch – its effect is directly correlated to the closeness in timing of the consumption of oral medication and AC itself.
Maybe lay off the activated charcoal food and drink that make for such great Instagram fodder, and make sure not to consume food & drink containing AC if you’ve recently taken any oral medications. And if you really want to impress your friends with a great photo op, may we recommend some food coloring?