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Should You Be Eating Activated Charcoal?

Black is the new black in the culinary world right now. Black baked goods, ice creams, coffees, and lemonades are popping up on store shelves and in hip restaurants and all are getting their dark hues from the same source: activated charcoal.

Why are people ingesting a substance normally used to cook food instead of flavor it? Are there really that many people who have longed to lick the briquettes before putting them in the grill? Turns out the draw isn't in the flavor or color of the charcoal, but in the promised health benefits. Foods with activated charcoal promise to help with digestive health, reduce cholesterol, and remove other impurities from the body. "There really isn't any reliable evidence to support these claims," said Amberly Johnson, Poison Information Specialist with the Utah Poison Control Center. "There hasn't been any substantive research or large studies into these supposed benefits."

What has been proven about activated charcoal is that it can be helpful in some instances of poisoning. The charcoal binds to the poison and keeps it from entering the blood stream. However, it is not always the best option. It should not be used unless the poison was recently ingested, and the patient is alert and aware. Also, it should not be used in cases where the poison in question is a liquid, a caustic agent, or a hydrocarbon like gasoline. "Activated charcoal should only be given in healthcare facilities," Johnson said. "We do not recommend at home use of activated charcoal for poisonings."

Poisons aren't the only substances activated charcoal can bind to in the stomach. It can also bind to foods you have eaten blocking the absorption of nutrients and medications you may have taken reducing their effectiveness. "If you are taking a medication that requires a certain dosage to be effective you may be putting yourself at risk," said Johnson.

There are risks involved with taking activated charcoal aside from medication interactions. The most common side effect is constipation, which occurs when the charcoal enters the intestine and hardens. In more severe cases this could lead to bowel blockages, or perforation.

While foods with activated charcoal may seem promising, it is important to know the risks and realize that the real benefits are likely only for whoever is selling you the darkly alluring items.