Charcoal has been connected to humanity since the discovery of fire. From the dawn of time – or at least since humans found out it was possible to cook meat by heating it on a fire – it has been inevitable that charcoal, of some sort, has been ingested as part of the diet.

This tradition has continued to the present day, along with the continued popularity of barbecues. In nutritional terms, the jury is still out as to whether charring is a health problem, as there are many other factors involved, such as smoke from fat burning on the hot surface of the grill.

From a nutritional point of view, people have now advanced beyond ‘caveman’ cooking and have since recognised the number of health benefits associated with activated charcoal.

A variety of uses

According to the Activated Carbon Producers Association, the activated form has been used – mainly for medical purposes – since 1550 BC by the Egyptians and again around 400 BC by Hippocrates. Back then, the father of modern western medicine used the chalky black substance to fight a host of different illnesses, such as epilepsy, chlorosis and vertigo.

Panning forward to the 21st century, it is still being used for a wide variety of different functions.

Activated charcoal has been carefully processed to make it more porous, with a rough, craterpocked surface that sets it apart from other types of charcoals, including the kind used to barbecue burgers and steaks. It is made by heating carbonrich materials to a very high temperature until pure carbon is formed and it is then generally activated in a steam atmosphere to incorporate air bubbles within it, in order to increase its surface area.

One of its primary uses is as a water, air and sewage purifier. It has also been used within emergency medicine to help fight poisoning and overdoses, binding with damaging toxins to help prevent them from being absorbed into the body.

Some have cautioned that it can attach itself to other things that may need to stay in the body, like essential nutrients and good gut bacteria, however. In an interview with the Guardian, Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of the University of Exeter, expressed concerns about its increased prevalence as an ingredient, stating, “It absorbs things that the body needs, for instance medications, which, of course, can lead to problems. Foremost, it absorbs water from the gut, which can lead to dehydration and constipation.”

On the flip side, it has also been noted as a useful tool for the prevention of diarrhoea in various studies, as it draws out and traps harmful microorganisms. Activated charcoal may also aid correct kidney function by diminishing the amount of waste products that the kidneys have to filter. This could be particularly beneficial in patients suffering from chronic kidney disease, a condition in which the kidneys can no longer adequately eliminate waste products.

A study on rats from the department of pharmacology and clinical pharmacy, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman, showed that activated carbon significantly ameliorated urinary toxins at a concentration of 20%. Although a small study, the results seem to suggest that charcoal can be a useful sorbent agent in dietary adenine-induced chronic renal failure in rats and that its use as an agent in the fight against human kidney disease should be investigated further.

It has also been touted to potentially decrease harmful cholesterol, linked to numerous health ailments, including high blood pressure and heart disease. In one small Lancet study, taking 24g of activated charcoal per day for four weeks lowered total cholesterol by 25% and bad LDL cholesterol by 25%. Good HDL cholesterol levels also increased by 8%. The side effects of its use in that report were described as ‘negligible’.


Amount of activated charcoal taken per day for four weeks, where total cholesterol was reduced by 25% and bad LDL cholesterol by 25%.

The Lancet

Catch the eye

Since those early days as an ancient Egyptian remedy, it’s popularity as a food ingredient has skyrocketed in recent years, with the fine black powder added to burger buns, smoothies and even cakes. Fast-food giant Burger King caused a stir back in 2012 when it released its Kuro burger in Japan. The unusual product combined a patty between a jet-black bun, a thick slice of black cheese, and a creamy black sauce drizzled with squid ink. While that may not sound like a particularly appetising feast to some, it certainly caught the eye as a marketing ploy for other restaurants to follow.

It’s inclusion in many an Instagram post has propelled charcoal’s notoriety as a somewhat gimmicky, but photogenic, food product into the stratosphere. It is now predicted to reach $4.09 billion by 2026, exhibiting an expected CAGR of 5.2% during the forecast period. While some sceptics have warned that claims charcoal acts like a panacea to draw out impurities are far-fetched, health-conscious consumers seem set to embrace this ‘dark matter’ for the foreseeable future.

Worsening water pollution worldwide will fuel the uptake of activated carbon

One of the leading activated carbon market trends is the increasing demand for activated carbon around the globe, owing to its effectivity in removing pollutants from contaminated water. Water pollution is a matter of grave concern for international and national bodies as lack of access to water has direct ramifications on the socio-economic fabric of a country. Rising industrial activities and expanding urban areas are aggravating the problem. Unep estimates that nearly 80% of waste water in the world goes untreated.

Activated charcoal can prove useful in this scenario. For example, powdered activated carbon is capable of removing an extensive variety of organic pollutants from waste water, due to its larger surface area to volume ratio. Therefore, the water can be recycled and reused in industries, avoiding the need to release it into freshwater bodies. Taking into consideration the multiple environmental benefits of activated carbon, its market is poised to experience a period of robust growth and expansion during the forecast period.

Asia-Pacific is anticipated to lead the activated carbon market share in the forecast period on account of the escalating demand for new technologies for treatment of waste water in India and China. Moreover, rapid growth in the population of these countries would necessitate the need for potable water, which is expected to spike the demand for activated carbon filters in the region.

North America boasted a market size of $709.7 million in 2018 and is expected to continue its impressive run – owing to the stringent industrial emission legislations being implemented in the US. A similar number of environmental laws will propel the market in Europe, while the increasing focus on water purification will boost the market in Latin America, according to the activated carbon market analysis.

Source: Fortune Business Insights