Although it's a common ingredient in many of our favorite packaged foods, trisodium phosphate isn't well-known by many people. While the ingredient is safe to consume in small quantities, trisodium phosphate can be problematic for the kidneys if eaten in large amounts.
Many foods have phosphate additives in them, and these additives can add up to roughly 50 percent of your phosphorous intake if you live in the U.S. or another Western country, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The recommended daily intake of phosphorus for adults is 700 milligrams (mg), and one 6-ounce container of yogurt contains 245 mg of this mineral, according to the NIH.
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Before your next trip to the grocery store, consider the foods containing large amounts of the ingredient and adjust your list accordingly!
What Is Trisodium Phosphate?
Phosphorus exists in both organic and inorganic forms, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Organic phosphorus is a naturally occurring mineral found in foods such as meats, fish and nuts. Inorganic phosphorus is typically found in food additives (aka phosphates) such as trisodium phosphate.
Trisodium phosphate is also used in inedible products like paint and cosmetics; however, it's not the same type of trisodium phosphate that's seen on some packaged foods' ingredient lists. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies trisodium phosphate as a Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) additive.
Phosphate additives are used to "preserve color, moisture and texture," in foods, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Trisodium phosphate is commonly present in processed cheeses, cereals and cereal bars. Fast food, in particular, contains high levels of trisodium phosphate. Sodium phosphates, like trisodium phosphate, are often added to raw poultry, beef, pork and seafood products to improve tenderness in leaner cuts of meat.
Common Concerns With Trisodium Phosphate
Trisodium phosphate can be dangerous if consumed in its raw form — which, unless you work with the compound in a laboratory, probably isn't likely to happen to you. Inhalation or ingestion of trisodium phosphate can lead to coughing, sore throat, abdominal pain or even shock, according to the International Programme on Chemical Safety. If you work in a lab or other setting that involves handling the compound, wear protective clothing and handle with care.
While trisodium phosphate is classified as a GRAS food additive by the FDA, there are some concerns worth considering. In general, inorganic phosphate food additives (such as trisodium phosphate) are very well absorbed in the gut, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The absorption rate for inorganic phosphorus is about 70 percent, but for organic phosphorus, the absorption rate is between 40 and 70 percent, per the NIH.
High levels of phosphorus can cause the body to pull calcium from the bones, which weakens them, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Elevated levels can also cause dangerous calcium deposits in your lungs, eyes and heart, leading to increased risk of heart attack and stroke, according to the National Kidney Foundation. For those with normally functioning kidneys, the organs easily remove extra phosphorus in the blood. However, for patients with chronic kidney disease, the kidneys may struggle to filter phosphorus from the bloodstream.
Controlling Your Trisodium Phosphate Consumption
There are measures you can take to control the levels of inorganic phosphates you consume. As your initial step, you may want to cut back on processed foods, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Baked goods, cereals, sodas and processed meats all contain high levels of phosphates.
Dairy products often contain higher levels of phosphorous additives too, according to the Mayo Clinic. Replace your milk, pudding, yogurt and processed cheeses with lower phosphorous alternatives like almond or rice milk products.
Read the labels of your food products carefully, advises the Mayo Clinic. While not all foods contain trisodium phosphate specifically, they may contain other similar additives that affect your body in the same way. Keep an eye out for ingredients that contain "phos" (like calcium phosphate or phosphoric acid) in the title.
If you have kidney disease or any other health condition where your doctor recommends you avoid high levels of phosphorus, consult with your doctor or dietitian to determine the best way to manage your intake of this mineral.
- Journal of Renal Nutrition: "Organic Phosphorus Versus Inorganic Phosphorus: Empowering Adult Kidney Patients With Nutrition Education"
- International Programme on Chemical Safety: "Trisodium Phosphate (Anhydrous)"
- National Kidney Foundation: "Phosphorus and Your CKD Diet"
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Chemical Cuisine"
- Mayo Clinic: "Low-Phosphorus Diet: Helpful For Kidney Disease?"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Food Additive Status List"
- National Institutes of Health: "Phosphorus"
- Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: "Phosphorus"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.