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Drinking Poison Control Medicine Is the Newest Bougie Health Fad

Juice companies and wellness blogs are suddenly lauding activated charcoal as a cure-all "detoxifier," but you may want to think twice before forking over $10 for "activated lemonade."

by Hilary Pollack
Mar 6 2015, 10:40pm

It took a while, but virtually every major metropolis in America has been infiltrated by a competitive cluster of juice shops slinging all kinds of $9 kale-and-beet tonics and spinach-ginger elixir shots, with loyal, yoga mat-carrying clientele coming back for a fix again and again despite the obvious price markup. Maybe we're all used to drinking our salad by now—there's no longer an edge to showing up to meet your small-town aunt with a blood-red beet juice in hand and hastily explaining the benefits of going "cold-pressed."

TIME notes in its most recent "This Is Now a Thing" column that activated charcoal is poised to be the next fanatical health ingredient du jour. It's suddenly become a common additive in green juice, protein drinks, and coconut-based supplements, popping up in beverages made by major juice purveyors Project Juice, Juice Generation, and LuliTonix. Holistic health blogs such as WellnessMama recommend it for everything from tooth-whitening to boosting your mood to sedating your children. And Juice Generation founder Eric Helms recently told the New York Post that the brand's "Activated" products—a line of three $9.95-a-piece drinks that contain activated charcoal—are some of "the most popular products [they've] ever introduced."

In typical fashion, Gwyneth Paltrow has announced via GOOP to her kingdom of vagina-steaming devotees that she stamps her seal of approval on Los Angeles-based brand JUICE Served Here's $8 Charcoal Lemonade—an alleged "liver detoxifier" and "hangover helper." Dave Asprey, Silicon Valley-based "biohacker" and author of The Bulletproof Diet, promotes it on his blog thusly: "Activated charcoal is the world's oldest detoxifying remedy and now it's available as a powerful and convenient supplement to help eliminate the toxins in your food and environment that make you fat, weak, and foggy-headed."

Though there's little scientific backing to support the heralded process of "detoxifying" that the health food community has become so fixated upon, there is some sound reason that the term can be tied to charcoal. Thinking back to childhood, when accidentally eating poison is just more of a thing, you may remember activated charcoal being force-fed to your brother that time that he drank Windex or ate a bunch of Prozac thinking that it was candy. That's because activated charcoal does have a rather incredible ability to stop the absorption of many toxic substances—for the same reason that it can be found in water filters. It's essentially a negatively-charged magnet that binds to impurities and drugs, preventing them from being absorbed by the body. But that doesn't mean that there are constantly undefinable toxins in your body that need to be flushed out.

Tim Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, is keen on debunking the "detoxifying" obsession. "It is our era's version of exorcising evil spirits," he tells me over email, "But despite the size of the industry and the growing popularity of the trend, there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that we should all be detoxifying. You have organs that do that for you. When you pee, you are detoxifying. It is free and doesn't take much time."

He also acknowledges that activated charcoal has its uses, though they're not necessarily best promoted by the juicing industry: "Charcoal is used in the medical setting for very specific purposes, such as when an individual has been poisoned. But there is no evidence that we need to be consuming this regularly."

In too-large doses, charcoal can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation—the latter being particularly likely, especially when it's mixed with certain medications. In addition, it also prevents the absorption of a lot more than just "toxins"—including nutrients from your food, the Advil that you had with your coffee, or the antidepressants that keep you from having daily panic attacks. Basically, like most drugs, it shouldn't be carelessly self-administered without any knowledge of dosage. Plus, given the level of ADD of the general populace, there will eventually be the people foolish enough to gnaw barbecue charcoal briquettes with the belief that they're ridding their bodies of indeterminate "poison."

Caulfield thinks that the charcoal fad is better thought of as a way to grab onto consumer dollars without having to provide any real evidence of health benefits. "This is grafting a new gimmick—eating charcoal—onto an already pretty silly gimmick: juicing. So, I guess this is ridiculous squared," he argues. "People are always looking for a magical formula to health and nutrition. But when has one of these fads ever, over the long term, turned out the be correct? Eat a sensible, balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Forget the gimmicks."

Reading about the newfound activated charcoal craze, I can't help but be reminded of a phase a few years ago when I took up the habit of eating chia pudding every morning after reading about the seeds'—as the mantra has become for any superfood—"many health benefits". But my morning ritual ended abruptly when a coworker told me about a friend of hers who was rushed to the emergency room for abdominal pain, and cut open by ER surgeons to reveal a massive intestinal blockage comprised entirely of chia seeds (apparently this type of thing happens from time to time).

Some people just need to learn how to stop worrying (and stop being obsessed with superfoods) and love the toxins.

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