Do health ‘experts’ seriously believe that eating activated charcoal rids our bodies of toxins? The Angry Chef, Anthony Warner, gets all fired up about detox trends
In a constant stream of websites, blogs and features, we are told that modern life is bombarding us with unprecedented levels of toxins, from our water supply, foods, plastics, packaging and cleaning products. These chemicals are supposedly overwhelming our systems, building up in our organs and tissues and causing everything from heart disease, cancer, depression and fatigue, all the way through to disappointing hair – perhaps the greatest fear of the Instagram generation.
The solution, we are told, is to undertake one of many supposed ‘natural’ detox treatments. Juice cleanses, lemon-water purges and any number of brutally restrictive diet regimens claim to rid your body of these ‘poisons’, by embracing apparently benign, ancient and natural remedies to combat the perils of our modern lifestyle.
Full of hot air
The newest detox kid on the block is activated charcoal. We’re not talking coals we throw on the barbie, but charcoal that has gone through a special process that, it is claimed, enables it to cleanse the body of toxins, ease bloating, beat hangovers and even whiten teeth.
However, currently the only science that stands up is that it can help to remedy flatulence. The British Nutrition Foundation says that consuming at least 1g activated charcoal before a meal and 1g after can remove excess gas. As for the other health benefits? No evidence whatsoever.
In reality, our bodies have a number of ingenious and remarkable systems – especially within our liver, kidneys and lungs – with the capacity to remove anything toxic from our bodies. None of these systems needs the slightest help from charcoal – or blueberries, spirulina or chia seeds, for that matter. If your body is ever unable to cope with an overload of dangerous toxicity, you’ll be needing an ambulance, not a kale smoothie followed by a cleansing foot rub.
Take a reality check
There are chemicals all around us, which may indeed cause us harm, and this has always been the case. Mother Nature is not in the habit of supplying us with a bountiful array of delicious treats. For most of human history, she has been relentlessly trying to kill us, often with a variety of ingenious and deadly toxins, and it is only the advance of science that has allowed us some respite. The enormous industry that has been built around false detox claims is based on the flimsiest of foundations, yet is worth hundreds of millions of pounds every year. Much of it is motivated by a hidden desire for short-term weight loss – disordered eating hiding behind vague notions of wellness – playing on our fears, misunderstandings and general insensitivity to evidence.
While detoxing, cleansing and purification claims are easy to dismiss as celebrity-driven nonsense, they are so ubiquitously held that their power should not be underestimated. For when we accept that this is just ‘what people believe’, we encourage the abandonment of reason, reject the need for evidence, and perpetuate a belief that modern life is vile and toxic, needing to be purged in some way. These are dangerous associations – the very things that underlie pseudoscientific cancer cures and anti-vaccine propaganda.
So, put down that detox superfood smoothie and delete those juice-cleanse recipes from your smartphone. Once you abandon the need for evidence and start accepting truths because they somehow feel ‘right’, where exactly does it end? If you allow pseudoscience to get in through the cracks, there is a real danger that you will open the floodgates…
Anthony Warner’s book The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating (Oneworld, £12.99), is out now. You can also find him blogging at angry-chef.com.