Phosphate Additives and Your Diet: What You Should Know


If you’re a food labels reader, you’ve probably seen trisodium phosphate listed as an ingredient in some breakfast cereals, but did you also know that there may be some health risks associated with consuming high amounts of phosphate additives, which are abundant in processed foods.

But despite what some websites would have you believe, there is nothing unique about trisodium phosphate compared with other phosphate-containing food additives, such as pyrophosphate, dipotassium phosphate, hexametaphosphate, diammonium phosphate, and phosphoric acid. And there’s no truth to the claim that trisodium phosphate in foods is a paint thinner.

Trisodium phosphate is approved as a food additive by the FDA and the European Union. This is food-grade trisodium phosphate-much-diluted, purified, and used in small amounts in food-not the technical grade chemical found in paint thinner and many other products. Scaremongering websites are lumping food-grade trisodium phosphate with industrial use of the chemical.

Phosphates-a form of the essential mineral phosphorus-are some of the most common food additives, present in thousands of products, from packaged meats, chicken nuggets, and processed cheeses to baked goods, cereals, and cereal bars. Colas, both regular and diet, are a notable source, but other sodas and beverages, even some flavored waters, as well as some powdered drink mixes, may contain them too. These additives are used by the food industry for many purposes-as leavening and anti-caking agents, stabilizers, flavor enhancers, emulsifiers, and moisture binders.

One concern about phosphate additives in general is that they are very well absorbed-sometimes up to 100 percent- which can lead to elevated blood levels. In contrast, only 10 to 60 percent of the naturally occurring phosphates widely found in meat, poultry, seafood, dairy foods, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains is absorbed. Elevated blood levels have been linked in some (though not all) studies to a spectrum of health problems, notably cardiovascular events-and not just in people with kidney disease (who have long been advised to limit their phosphorus intake, including phosphate additives), but also in healthy people. It’s thought that phosphates may damage blood vessels and make them less flexible, as well as promote calcification in blood vessels, thus contributing to atherosclerosis.

While the mineral phosphorus is needed for healthy bones, there is also accumulating evidence that excess phosphates may contribute to low bone density and osteoporosis. Thus, many experts urge caution. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advises to “cut back” on phosphates. The Environmental Working Group offers similar advice.

More research is needed to confirm the potential adverse effects of phosphate additives. The European Food Safety Authority has been evaluating them and is expected to release its findings in late 2018. In the meantime, limiting processed foods, including soda, is a sure way to reduce them in your diet. If you have chronic kidney disease, it’s particularly important to watch your intake, under the guidance of your health care provider or a registered dietitian.