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Black magic?

Consumers are flocking to activated charcoal products for a bevy of perceived health benefits

charcoal

Long before photos of black ice cream hit Instagram by storm, activated charcoal had been finding its way into supplements, beauty products and beverages. In fact, its first uses can be traced back centuries when the Japanese and Native Americans used charcoal to purify water and air, neutralize stomach acids and even clean teeth. And activated charcoal is often used in hospitals to treat acute poisoning from acetaminophen, aspirin and other medications.

These days, more and more grocery shoppers are also gravitating towards the black stuff for its health benefits, say trend watchers. “Our research shows that more than half of consumers are likely to buy products that have targeted health claims so they’re interested in these kinds of things,” says Maia Chang, senior research analyst, consumer insights at research firm Technomic. “Women are especially likely to pay more for items that aid digestion or have other functional benefits.”

Alex Picot-Annand, a registered holistic nutritionist with The Big Carrot grocery store in Toronto, says “detox” is an ongoing buzzword and activated charcoal has become associated with the practice. “People love detoxing the skin, detoxing the gut, and any substance seen as detoxifying tends to do well,” she says. “I see society, in general, shifting to more holistic approaches and people are increasingly looking for natural alternatives to what ails them.”

Ryan Dennis, director of communications at Nature’s Emporium, a multi-location natural foods market that carries a variety of activated charcoal products, says the substance is widely seen as a safe and effective means of maintaining overall wellness. “We’ve carried these products for many years, although we’ve seen the interest grow strongly over the last one to two years.”

Dennis attributes the sudden popularity to wellness bloggers and celebrity influencers touting charcoal’s health benefits. “Activated charcoal draws toxins in, traps them and allows them to be removed,” says Dennis. “Now we’re seeing customers put those traits to use in myriad ways—using it for masks and skin care as well as oral hygiene.”

Social media is also spurring the trend towards black foods and beverages, with everything from burger buns and pasta to cold-pressed juices with activated charcoal. Given the substance is flavourless and turns anything it’s mixed with into a dramatic black, chefs are finding it fun to work with, says The Big Carrot’s Picot-Annand. “However, the actual research on its efficacy is pretty mixed so I don’t know if it will have the staying power of better researched substances like vitamin C, echinacea or milk thistle,” she adds.

Manufacturers getting in on the trend tend to disagree. “This category is on fire now and North America is just discovering it,” says Mary Futher, founder of Toronto-based Kaia Naturals, which recently launched a line of activated charcoal deodorant called The Takesumi Detox.

Organika Health Products, the first in Canada to offer activated charcoal in a powder format, has major retailers such as Sobeys and Calgary Co-op on board, with Loblaw expected to soon follow. “Customers are well-versed … so our suggestion to grocers is to merchandise this in their beauty/facemask section as this is where most are looking for it,” says Aaron Chin, national sales lead.

Nature Emporium’s Dennis expects we’ll see a lot more innovation on the horizon when it comes to products with activated charcoal. “As a retailer dedicated to sharing the latest and greatest wellness-inspiring offering with our customers, it’s equally likely we’ll include space for these products in the future,” he says.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s September issue

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