In addition to the usual ingredients of apple, celery, kale, spinach, parsley, romaine, cucumber and lettuce, health drinks are now adding activated charcoal. Photo by ADVOCATE news services

Why is activated charcoal trending?

  • Apr. 13, 2017 12:30 a.m.

Matt Velazquez, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Marquette basketball beat writer, was in Greenville, S.C., last month covering the Golden Eagles in the NCAA Tournament when he sent out a tweet promoting his purchase of a peculiar juice.

It was interesting — not just because of the familiar sports reporter diet of caffeine and fast food — but that the juice he found had these ingredients: apple, celery, kale, spinach, parsley, romaine, cucumber, lemon — all good stuff. And then …

Activated charcoal?

Velazquez and his wife have a juicer at home and at least once a week, they make their own green juices. So when Matt found this store, he tried a few samples and went for a healthy pick-me-up.

“I had never tried anything with activated charcoal and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been able to sample it first,” said Velazquez. “I’m still not really sure what it does. …”

But walk into vitamin shops or supplement stores and you’ll probably find it displayed prominently. In the trendy business of health and fitness, there’s a buzz about activated charcoal.

“Activated charcoal is ingested in an effort to rid the body of harmful toxins,” said Kelly Drew, registered dietitian at the Princeton Club in New Berlin.

Drew said it’s typically given to patients in controlled health care settings for cases of alcohol poisoning and drug overdose.

But over the last few years, it has gained popularity with consumers looking to “detox” since it is thought to absorb bacteria, viruses, pesticides and other chemicals and may help with gas and bloating. Drew said activated charcoal also can be found in other cleanses.

“While this all sounds appealing, there is currently no solid research proving its use in cholesterol management or weight loss,” Drew said. “It is also important to note activated charcoal does not differentiate between harmful toxins and nutrients.”

So that makes Matt’s juice kind of crazy. Wouldn’t the activated charcoal negate all the healthy macronutrients from the greens in his juice?

When I asked about activated charcoal at a local supplement store, I was told it is something you use after you had a “bad” meal or if you’d had a night out drinking. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Just erase all the bad stuff before the damage is done?

“How very misleading that whole industry can be,” said Nicole Kerneen, registered dietitian for Way of Life Nutrition and Fitness.

She said we should be extremely careful using it.

“It really isn’t made to be used on a continuous basis,” said Kerneen. “If you’re using it, it’s because there’s a little bit of a rough weekend, possibly where you’re not going to be eating normally. You’re eating things that would potentially upset your stomach. Maybe there’s going to be a lot of drinking involved.

“All it does is help your body kind of digest a little bit more. It dispels gas.”

She recommended taking no more than the recommended dose. And since charcoal is a binding agent, she said it should not be taken with any medication or minerals.

“I don’t like that it was already put in a juice — that could be extremely irritating to someone who is sensitive to things,” she said.

I’m going to be writing about food and supplements all month because I’m trying to shed a few excess pounds, and doctors and nutritionists generally agree that what we eat accounts for 80 percent of our weight. The other 20 percent is determined by our exercise.

Of course, I’m tempted to walk into a store or look online and load up on every supplement that is supposed to help us lose weight, or sleep better, or burn more fat, or boost our metabolism or whatever. But I always run things by a nutritionist or my doctor first.

Drew said that while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements, they do not have to be approved. And the regulations for dietary supplements are different and less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

“It’s kind of a buyer-beware situation,” said Drew. “Unfortunately, products and companies don’t get called out until there’s major problems; ephedra, for instance. Some companies, though, do voluntarily undergo premarket FDA approval. Look for the ‘USP-verified’ mark.”

Drew advocated consulting with a physician before taking a supplement, especially if someone has a micronutrient deficiency or takes medications. She also warned that repeated or long-term use may also lead to vomiting, constipation or diarrhea. If you don’t see your doctor, see a nutritionist.

“Perhaps this is OK on occasion,” Drew said. “And, of course, it shouldn’t give people the license to make poor choices on a daily basis, especially since the charcoal has the potential to rid the body of any helpful nutrients.”

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