It could be in your food, but it’s under a name you probably don’t recognize. Is disodium phosphate dangerous?

What Is It?

Disodium phosphate is a food additive. It is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

jell-ocereal and cheesecanned sauces and pasta

Phosphates like disodium phosphate are derived from the element phosphorus and are used to enhance food characteristics including nutritional value and cooking performance. This phosphate in particular is used in packaged foods including macaroni and pastas, as well as in some cheeses, as an emulsifier. You can also find it in meat products, canned sauces, Jell-O, evaporated milk, and some chocolate.

Originally derived from animal bones and urine, phosphorus is now extracted from phosphate rock, which is purified and put through chemical reactions.

Is It Safe?

When it comes to food additives, it’s completely rational to wonder about safety. The FDA’s stance isn’t completely reassuring for some people.

The Environmental Working Group says there is a “fair” amount of data available on this phosphate, and that the additive can still be considered safe. It’s not considered to be an environmental toxin, potentially harmful to humans, or bioaccumulative (where it accumulates within your body over time). It is also classified as a “low human health priority” under Canadian law.

In 2012, a study was published declaring phosphates hazardous. The researchers suggested that all foods containing phosphates should be labeled as dangerous to public health. According to their research, accumulating phosphates in the body can cause organ calcification in people suffering from renal failure, and even in people with normally functioning kidneys.

The International Food Additives Council drafted a response to this study, stating that inorganic phosphates have a long history of safe use in food, and that additional studies have proven its safety. That being said, foods containing disodium phosphate are often packaged and heavily processed, so they’re not the healthiest choices to begin with.

How to Avoid It

If you’re leery of disodium phosphate despite assurances of its safety, you can simply keep it out of your diet — though identifying it may be cumbersome.

In most cases, all you need to do is check the ingredients list on food packaging to tell if it contains disodium phosphate or not. However, phosphates are also used in the meat industry to prevent spoilage, and meat packages don’t typically mention this.

Avoiding packaged and processed foods is one way around disodium phosphate, and it will benefit your overall health as well. Purchasing locally produced meats is another.