Activated charcoal is one of the latest “wellness” trend and by wellness I mean things that charlatans want you to buy that have no hope of helping you. So yes my friends that leads us directly to GOOP and their latest installment in medical stupidity, activated charcoal chai. This concept is so medical inept I hardly know where to begin. It’s like someone used a random woo generator capable of alliteration. Perhaps next week we will be treated to Ringer’s lactate lattes or lipid emulsion espresso.
Like all GOOP posts this one starts with a tiny little bit of medical information and then contorts it until it is unrecognizeable. The little nugget of truth here is that activated charcoal is a thing with an actual medical use. It is a gastrointestinal decontaminant for the treatment of poisoning. It works because it has a very large surface area and can bind many, but not all, poisons in the stomach and sometimes small intestine. Activated charcoal doesn’t just bind to poisons it can bind to many things. Tuck this info away for just a wee bit.
As fear of unknown “toxins,” especially gut “toxins” (actual botulinum toxin for the face being just dandy) is a big thing at GOOP the activated charcoal chai is a perfect fit. Detoxification has never been so tasty or trendy or medical sounding! GOOP and Paltrow are also obsessed with Candida (I could write a book about what everyone gets wrong about yeast) so using charcoal chai to help “candida” to “GTFO” fits right in with their shilling for dollars. I am surprised they don’t suggest sipping it while steaming one’s vagina.
OK, let’s bring on the science!
I turned to Dr. David Juurlink, a Toxicology God and Professor at the University of Toronto. His initial response was brief and to the point. “It’s bullshit,” he wrote.
Dr. Juuralink points out that any possible medicinal benefits of the other ingredients of the chai would be inactivated by the charcoal because it will bind to almost anything within reach. So the chai is already deactivated of any potential health benefit before it hits your lips. And the drink itself may very well deactivate the charcoal. Oops!
And what exactly is this homeopathic charcoal supposed to rid one of? Why, the “not-so-great stuff” of course! I bet “not-so-great stuff” is an entire semester at Naturopath schools.
What about the claim that charcoal “can be helpful when you’d really like the contents of your GI tract to GTFO (read: candida).” It hurt my brain trying to figure out what this means. For most people Candida albicans is a commensal (meaning a normal inhabitant of the bowel). You have it, I have it, my kids have it. Even Gwyneth has it, although maybe it makes her feel too pedestrian? It can definitely contribute to disease, but we don’t really know exactly how that happens. Regardless, if you are healthy the Candida in your bowel is not lurking trying to kill you, it’s doing its business helping you with your business. The idea that the balance between normal Candida and disease-causing Candida can be regulated by 1/4 tsp of charcoal (1.82 g) that miraculously escaped deactivation by the “chai” and stomach contents is infantile and insulting. Does GOOP really mean that homeopathic doses of charcoal binds yeast somehow decreasing the colony counts? There are no studies on charcoal and microbiological flora of the human intestinal tract, but lack of biologic plausibility or studies has never stopped GOOP before so why stop now?
It’s almost laughable that activated charcoal has found its way into the “natural” and “wellness” trends. According to GOOP one can even buy it in the vitamin aisle. Want to know how they make it? Carbon-containing materials such as wood pulp, coal, or lignite (brown coal and yes I had to look it up) are chemically converted into charcoal (i.e. pure carbon), ground into a fine powder and activated via treatment with steam, oxygen, carbon dioxide, acids and other chemicals. This is better living through chemistry not grind your medicine with a mortar and pestle. Offering activated charcoal as a natural remedy is just like saying gentian violet is natural (gentian violet is named for the color and it’s made from coal tar not a plant). Activated charcoal has way more in common with petroleum than any vitamin.
Large and repeated doses of charcoal have been associated with bezoars (think a big lump of coal obstructing your bowel) so this is definitely a case of a little is of no help and a lot could be worse. Who knows what chronic ingestion could do?
And one more thing the recipe doesn’t actually call for any tea, so if we are going to be honest this is coal-treated-with-chemicals spiced ginger pea milk and no it will not get Candida or anything else the fuck out of your GI tract.
There is zero science behind the claim that activated charcoal “chai” will do anything except make you sound like a pretentious idiot.