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What’s The Fuss About Trisodium Phosphate In Foods? Is It Good Or Bad?

Reviewed By Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Julie Freeman , MA, RDN, LDN, RYT
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What’s The Fuss About Trisodium Phosphate In Foods? Is It Good Or Bad? March 15, 2019

Phosphorus is a mineral your body needs to build bones. Foods like cheese, nuts, seeds, and beans contain a significant amount of phosphorus in the form of organic phosphates. This element also forms inorganic chemicals of industrial importance. But, when such inorganic phosphates are added to foods you eat, they can cause serious issues with nutritional imbalances.

Trisodium phosphate is one such inorganic salt that is found in processed foods. What is it? How does it affect your health? Is it safe to eat? Why is it added to foods? You will find answers to many such critical questions in this article. Read on!

Table Of Contents

What Is Trisodium Phosphate? Why Is It Under The Scanner?

Trisodium phosphate is a chemical and a food additive. It is added to cheese as an emulsifier and to baked foods as a leavening agent. Trisodium phosphate can also control the pH of the foods and give certain beverages their characteristic flavor (1).

What’s alarming is that it is an industrial grade detergent (2)!

Trisodium phosphate is found in dishwashing soaps and floor and bathroom cleaners in higher percentages. It is used to remove grease and grime from oily surfaces (1).

This phosphate derivative is so strong that it can cause burns when it comes in contact with your skin.

So, what is such an active cleaning agent doing in our foods? Isn’t it poisonous? That was my thought too. And then, I came across this information.

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Why Is Trisodium Phosphate Added To Foods?

Trisodium phosphate is a phosphate salt you can find in processed cheese, baked goods, cereals, energy bars, colas, sports drinks, and beverages (3).

Generally, such phosphate salts are added to foods (in small amounts) because they have antimicrobial, acidifying, leavening, anti-caking, flavor enhancing, and moisture binding properties (3).

But, the problem here is, our body absorbs phosphate very easily. Though the processed foods have trisodium phosphate in minimal amounts, it gets accumulated and magnified when you consume a lot of these foods.

That brings us to the next and obvious question…

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How Does Your Body Process Trisodium Phosphate? Does It Affect Your Health?

As your body can absorb phosphate easily, having too much trisodium phosphate or any phosphate salt in your food is a big problem (4).

Recent studies reveal that natural phosphates (e.g., organic esters) found in foods are not completely absorbed in our body. A major fraction of it is organically bound and unavailable for absorption.

On the other hand, inorganic phosphates in food additives (like trisodium phosphate) are freely available. They don’t need any enzymes to break them down and are hence quickly absorbed (4).

These phosphates can increase the serum phosphate levels, causing hyperphosphatemia. High phosphate levels can damage your vascular system. A gradual accumulation of trisodium phosphate in your veins, arteries, capillaries can trigger kidney and heart diseases (4).

Phosphorus toxicity can cause diarrhea, vomiting, twitching, convulsions, calcium malabsorption, brittle bones, and hormonal imbalance.

You Know What?

Cola drink would be jet black if it were not for added phosphates. These phosphates are responsible for giving colas their iconic and classic brown tinge!

The story is:

A chemical reaction called advanced glycation produces end products (AGE) that turn the cola pitch black.

Phosphates can stop a reaction called glycation, which can, in turn, inhibit the advanced glycation (4).

So, because of added phosphates, your cola looks brown and not pitch black. The amount of phosphate added to each liter of cola is about 520 mg (4).

How does that make cola healthy? It doesn’t! It’s all about the visual effects.

Well, one question still remains unanswered!

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Why Are We Still Eating Foods With Trisodium Phosphate? And Why Is It Not Banned?

Because the manufacturers got the point – moderation is key.

There is a set limit for added phosphates in foods. So, the manufactures can only add that much of trisodium phosphate. For instance, < 3% by weight of cheese is the permissible limit in cheese making (5).

When it is less than a set dose, trisodium phosphate is considered safe for consumption. Hence, it has a GRAS status – generally recognized as safe by the US FDA (5).

Does that mean it is safe to eat foods that contain trisodium phosphate?

Well, yes – if they have trace amounts of this salt. Is there a way to know? No. The FDA has not made phosphorus content labeling compulsory on the food labels. This means you will not be able to know how much trisodium phosphate you are taking in.

But to save you from disaster, here’s a comprehensive list of commonly consumed foods. These are known to contain significant levels of phosphorus and related phosphates. Take a look.

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Top 9 High Phosphorus Foods You Should Avoid Overconsuming

  1. Baked foods (Pastries, doughnuts, cakes, breads)
  2. Cheese
  3. Cola drinks
  4. Bottled fruit juice
  5. Flavored beverages
  6. Canned milk
  7. Processed meat and meat products
  8. Canned/flavored yogurt
  9. Breakfast cereals

The list only gets longer!

These foods might have considerable levels of trisodium phosphate and other phosphate salts as food additives (6).

You can try your luck and check the food labels for any phosphate salts. Have small and balanced portions.

Or, you can try these foods instead. These contain naturally occurring phosphates (7). They can be less harmful than the ones having trisodium phosphate as an additive (listed above):

  • Almonds
  • Salmon
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Cereal bran
  • Dates
  • Beans, seeds, kernels, etc.

You can choose your favorites from this list and frame a balanced diet – only after you discuss it with your nutritionist or dietitian.

Remember! It’s all about balance, and there is a delicate balance between calcium and phosphorus.

The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for phosphorus is 4,000 mg/day for healthy adults. We generally exceed it because of salts like trisodium phosphate in processed foods.

Summing It Up…

Trisodium phosphate is an industry-grade cleaning agent and detergent and, above all, a common food additive.

Since trace amounts of this chemical have no proven toxicity to humans, the US FDA has it under the GRAS list of food additives. But, there are no norms to measure and know the amount of such phosphates in processed foods.

It is best to minimize your trisodium phosphate and phosphate salt intake. Pick the dietary sources of natural organic phosphates and avoid adverse effects of hyperphosphatemia.

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Hope we see the ‘added phosphate’ levels on food labels soon!

References

  1. Why is trisodium phosphate in my cereal…” Tennessee Poison Center, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
  2. Trisodium Phosphate” Open Chemistry Database, PubChem, National Center for Biotechnology Information.
  3. Phosphate Additives and Your Diet: What…” Healthy Living, Health and Wellness Alerts, UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
  4. Phosphate Additives in Food- a Health Risk” Deutsches Arzteblatt International, US National Library of Medicine.
  5. Food Additive Status List” Food Additives & Ingredients, U.S. Food & Drug Administration.
  6. High Phosphorus Foods” Nephrology Internal Medicine, University of Michigan Health System.
  7. Phosphorus” Micronutrient Information Center, Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University.