Of all the things I regularly ingest on my mission to improve my health—apple cider vinegar shots, pills made from plum blossom extract, and a whole lot of fish oil, to name a few—charcoal has never crossed my mind. I had vague notions that charcoal was the key element in the stomach-pumping process used in hospitals to treat poisoning or overdose. But otherwise, I was in the dark.
So when one of my go-to green-juice spots, Juice Generation, announced that they were launching a new line of charcoal-based drinks, I was a little confused. Stomach pumping didn’t seem like a particularly positive way to approach wellness.
Turns out, activated charcoal (the technical term here) is not the same as ipecac. When regular charcoal is heated to a point where it expands and becomes more porous, we get to call it “activated.” In this form, it has a negative charge and tons of little pockets. When ingested, it makes its way through your system, trapping toxins and gases in its pores and then expunges them from your body.
Never one to let a weird diet fad pass me by, I resolved to try some charcoal-infused juices out for myself. I ordered up a set of Juice Generation’s three new beverages plus an option from LuliTonix, another of my favorite juice spots. I resolved to drink one per day for four days. Here’s how it went:
*Day 1: Juice Generation Activated Lemonade
*This seemed like as good a way as any to start off a Monday morning. I set off for a meeting with the juice in my bag. When I took the bottle out and set it on the table, I got some very curious stares. If you’re looking for a way to shock your colleagues, this is it. I had no idea what to expect so I took a very small first sip. It tasted like…lemonade. I was pleasantly surprised and finished the whole juice in one sitting after which I felt: fine. Totally the same as before.
*Day 2: Juice Generation Activated Greens
*Feeling emboldened by my first foray into charcoal, I decided to drink this ultra-vegetable-filled (kale, spinach, celery, parsley, romaine, and cucumber) juice for breakfast. It tasted exactly like a super green juice—a little salty but otherwise, totally normal. I did end up eating some granola afterwards (juice diets have never been for me), but this one felt good and extremely healthy.
*Day 3: LuliTonix Black Magic
*This is also a lemonade (composed of lemon, water, maple syrup, and sea salt, in addition to the charcoal). It is also the weirdest looking by far. This thing is pitch black. I took this one to-go and decided to drink it in the subway, thinking maybe I would get some kind of reaction. Nobody even batted an eye. Typical New York. This was definitely the tastiest of the three I’d tried but that good flavor came at a price: 26 grams of sugar. That’s more than a serving of the crazy artisanal ice cream I insist on buying at Whole Foods.
*Day 4: Juice Generation Activated Protein
*I was feeling so brave by this point, that I didn’t even hesitate before I took a sip of this one. I had been going around for days telling everyone how great my juices tasted. “You can’t even tell there is charcoal in them!” I swore. Until this one. It could have been the nuts and seeds or maybe the thicker consistency stopped the charcoal from blending in, but this one had a seriously gritty consistency. I took a few sips and “saved the rest for later.” It’s still sitting in my fridge.
Once you get over their color, charcoal juices pretty much taste like anything else you would get at a your local juice purveyor. And for the most part, the effects are the same, as well—I had read articles warning me that the charcoal could make you feel nauseous or keep you running back to the bathroom for several hours. But, other than a little bit of gurgling in my stomach, I felt fine. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I felt “detoxed”(does anyone really know what that feels like?) but I did feel pretty virtuous.
Of course, I also pat myself on the back when I substitute a side salad for fries with my bacon cheeseburger so I went to nutritionist Marissa Lippert, who also happens to own NYC health food spot Nourish Kitchen + Table, to find out what I was really doing to my body. Her gut reaction: “it’s probably just a ‘detoxy’ trend,” she says. “Activated charcoal has become a hot topic because it supposedly sucks up toxins in the body, but we’re lacking evidence as to its actual effectiveness.”
The word toxin is an overused buzzword these days, so I asked her to get more specific. What exactly does the charcoal allegedly carry away? “Toxins in this case could refer to pesticides and chemicals from the food we eat, chemicals, and gases we breathe in during the day and more. It’s a pretty broad statement,” she explained.
According to Lippert, the dangers of charcoal ingestion aren’t enormous but the benefits probably aren’t either. Additionally, she says that the potential value may be contradicted when the charcoal is consumed with an acid substance (like lemon juice). That takes my favorite lemonade off the table. To make matters worse, the rumors that it is the ultimate hangover cure are false, she confirms.
If you are still intrigued by the trend, and want to see for yourself what the hype is about, Lianna Sugarman, the founder of LuliTonix has a few suggestions. First, make sure not to ingest activated charcoal within two hours of any medications or supplements that you take. “Its badass adsorptive powers may bind up stuff you would rather keep,” she explains. Her other main instruction: water and fiber are charcoal’s best friends and allies when it comes to toxin removal. Make sure to have plenty of each.
Final pro-tip for the brave: Serve some up at your next cocktail party. If I learned anything from this experience, it’s that charcoal is an oddly effective conversation starter.
Photographed by Tom Newton.