Dominic DeVenuta

These days, activated charcoal is everywhere, turning all manner of food an appropriate shade of goth.

Activated charcoal or carbon adds that black hue that makes whatever it’s added to look like it just got a makeover at Hot Topic. Around Portland, it’s appeared in ice creams at Virtuous Pie and Departure, in juice at Portland Juice Co., in smoothies at Prasad, and it’s popping off in the food sosh meeds all over the country.

While some chefs add it just for looks, others claim that dosing your daily juice with the stuff serves to detox your body. But according to both a naturopath and a professor at OHSU, more than likely the charcoal is going to wind up absorbing the birth control or anti-depressants in your stomach... or just leave you constipated.

Here’s how someone who went to school a lot longer than I did put it: “The major mechanism of how charcoal works as a treatment for acute drug overdoses is that it binds drugs in the stomach and prevents them from being absorbed into the body,” says Shana Kusin, MD, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Medical Toxicology at OHSU. “In order for this to be effective, charcoal needs to be in the stomach at the same time as the drug; its effectiveness wanes once pills have been digested and absorbed. I think people believe that taking charcoal at random times throughout the day somehow ‘detoxifies’ their body in a vague sense—but that’s not really how charcoal works.”

Dr. Rebecca Principe, a naturopathic physician in Portland, went so far as to label activated charcoal used for “health” purposes as “detrimental.” She says she’s had a few patients ask about it, but mostly she’s seen it in Facebook ads and on health and food blogs.

“If you take it with food, then the charcoal is going to steal some of the nutrition you’re trying to get from the food (or drink),” she says, adding that this also goes for any medications that you may very much like to have in your system, if you take them around the same time.

(My imagined worst case scenario: wake up hung-over, pop a birth control, and wash it down with a charcoal juice to “detox” the hangover, and then wind up with an unexpected pregnancy. BOOO!)

Dr. Kusin says she can’t think of a minimum or recommended amount of activated charcoal to eat or drink.

“I don’t believe it’s harmful to take in small amounts such as one finds in food and drink,” she says, but again stressed the dangers of taking medications around the same time, and that “taking large and frequent amounts would be constipating.”

Dr. Principe says she’ll occasionally give it to patients who have toxicity from food poisoning, but that’s about it.

“I don’t consider it a substance that should be taken casually or regularly,” she says. “There are lots of safe, effective ways to support your liver and colon’s natural processes without risking the loss of nutrients.”