There is growing concern surrounding the safety of food additives, which are used to prolong shelf life, enhance flavor and improve texture.
Trisodium phosphate is a common food additive found in many types of processed items like cereals, cheeses, soda and baked goods.
While the FDA considers it safe, some evidence suggests that phosphate additives like trisodium phosphate may harm your health (1).
This article investigates whether trisodium phosphate poses a risk to your health.
Sodium phosphate refers to a group of phosphorus-derived food additives.
These additives are made by combining different combinations of sodium (salt) and inorganic phosphate, a phosphorus-derived chemical compound.
Phosphorus is an important mineral that is naturally found in foods like milk, beans, meat, fish, eggs, poultry and nuts.
This type of natural phosphorus is known as organic phosphorus and essential for bone health, cellular repair, muscle contraction and nerve function, among other vital processes (2).
Inorganic phosphorus includes phosphorus-derived food additives like trisodium phosphate, which are added to foods as an ingredient.
Trisodium phosphate is one of the most common types of sodium phosphate additives and can be found in a variety of items.
It and other phosphate additives are routinely used in fast food and other highly processed products.
Summary Trisodium phosphate is a food additive that contains sodium and inorganic phosphate. Sodium phosphate additives are commonly found in highly processed foods.
Trisodium phosphate and other sodium phosphate additives have multiple uses in the food industry and are found in many commercially prepared products.
They are used to decrease acidity and improve texture in foods like baked goods and meats.
They also act as leavening agents in baked goods, meaning they help dough rise and maintain its form.
For example, trisodium phosphate is a popular ingredient in store-bought bread, cakes, muffins and cake mixes due to its ability to increase the fluffiness and height of these items.
It’s also often added to meat and seafood products like bacon, sausage, lunch meat and canned tuna to help retain moisture, increase shelf life and prevent spoilage (3).
Additionally, sodium phosphate additives help balance out the pH levels of these foods, keeping them from becoming too acidic or alkaline, which can cause food to spoil more quickly.
Furthermore, sodium phosphate additives act as thickening agents in products like boxed mashed potatoes, prevent soda from darkening in color and keep the oil and water in processed cheese products from separating (4).
Summary Sodium phosphate additives are added to many processed foods to improve texture, help baked goods rise, prevent spoilage and increase shelf life.
Although certain types of sodium phosphate are used in cleaning and paint products, it’s important to know that these are not the same as food-grade sodium phosphate.
Food-grade sodium phosphate is used throughout the world and recognized as safe by major regulatory agencies like the FDA and the European Union (5).
Consuming small amounts of foods that contain sodium phosphate is most likely not harmful to your health.
However, since many people consume fast food, processed meats and packaged foods on a daily basis, there is concern that high levels of sodium phosphate can harm the body.
Organic phosphorus, which is found naturally in foods like dairy products and meats, has a much lower and slower absorption rate than the inorganic type of phosphorus (sodium phosphate) added to processed foods.
Organic phosphorus is much less absorbable than inorganic phosphorus.
The digestive system only absorbs around 40–60% of organic phosphorus, while it absorbs up to 100% of the inorganic phosphorus found in foods like cereals, cakes, soda and deli meat (6).
Since inorganic phosphorus is more effectively absorbed by the digestive tract, it affects the body differently than organic phosphorus.
Eating too many foods containing sodium phosphate additives can raise phosphate levels in the body to an unhealthy level.
Studies have linked high levels of phosphate with conditions like heart disease, decreased bone density, premature aging, kidney issues and even early death (7).
Summary Sodium phosphate additives are absorbed more effectively than natural sources of phosphorus. While consuming small amounts of sodium phosphate is likely safe, eating too much sodium phosphate can lead to unhealthy levels of phosphorus in the body.
While consuming too much sodium phosphate is not good for anyone’s health, small amounts of it are considered safe.
Nevertheless, people with certain medical conditions should avoid foods that contain sodium phosphate additives like trisodium phosphate.
People With Kidney Disease or Kidney Failure
When the kidneys are healthy and functioning normally, they filter out waste products from the blood, including excess phosphorus.
However, when the kidneys are compromised, such as in those with chronic kidney disease (CKD) or kidney failure, they lose the ability to properly excrete waste products.
People with kidney failure and advanced CKD need to limit the amount of phosphorus they consume to avoid high blood levels of phosphorus.
Consuming too much phosphorus can further harm already compromised kidneys by damaging blood vessels and causing abnormal calcium buildup (8).
In fact, higher phosphorus intake is linked to an increased risk of death in people with kidney failure on hemodialysis, a blood purification treatment (9).
Those With Osteoporosis and Osteopenia
A diet high in foods that contain sodium phosphate additives may harm bone health.
Maintaining normal levels of phosphorus in the body is essential for strong bones.
However, disturbing this delicate balance by consuming too much or too little phosphorus can wreak havoc on the skeletal system.
For example, a study found that consuming a diet rich in sodium phosphate food additives increased fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23), an inhibitor of bone mineralization, by 23%, compared to an identical diet low in phosphate additives (10).
Another study in 147 premenopausal women demonstrated that a habitual high intake of foods containing phosphate additives led to high levels of parathyroid hormone, a hormone that regulates calcium levels throughout the body (11).
Parathyroid hormone signals the body to release calcium from the bones to balance body calcium levels.
Having abnormally high levels of parathyroid hormone can harm bone health by causing excess calcium loss from the bones (12).
People With Heart Conditions
Your heart can also be harmed by excess consumption of sodium phosphate additives.
In fact, high circulating phosphorus levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease in people with and without kidney disease.
Having too much phosphorus in the body can damage the heart by causing the calcification of blood vessels.
A large study in 3,015 young adults found that higher blood levels of phosphate were associated with increased coronary artery calcification and other heart disease risk factors.
Additionally, participants who had serum phosphate levels greater than 3.9 mg/dL had a 52% greater risk of coronary artery calcification 15 years later, compared to those with levels below 3.3 mg/dL (13).
Those Who Have Inflammatory Bowel Disease
High intake of inorganic phosphorus has been shown to worsen intestinal inflammation in animal studies.
Inflammation is at the root of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, which are collectively referred to as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.
A recent animal study suggests that a diet high in inorganic phosphate could exacerbate symptoms associated with IBD.
Rats fed a diet high in phosphate had more inflammatory markers, intestinal inflammation and symptoms like bloody stool, compared to rats that were fed a low-phosphate diet (16).
Summary Although everyone should limit their intake of foods containing sodium phosphate additives, those with heart conditions, kidney disease or bone issues should do their best to avoid foods containing it.
Getting the recommended amount of phosphorus through a healthy, balanced diet isn’t difficult, as organic phosphorus is found naturally in many foods.
However, if you are consuming a diet rich in processed foods, there's a good chance you may be getting more phosphorus than your body needs, which isn't good for your health.
Phosphorus intake has steadily increased over time due to the increased consumption of phosphorus-containing food additives like trisodium phosphate.
In fact, Americans have increased their phosphorus intake by 10–15% over the past 20 years (17).
Shockingly, studies suggest that phosphorus additives from processed foods can contribute as much as 50% of total daily phosphorus intake when following a Westernized diet (18).
To avoid consuming too much phosphorus in the form of food additives, limit the following:
- Lunch meats
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Commercially prepared breakfast bars
- Cake mixes
- Canned tuna
- Fruit-flavored drinks
- Sweetened iced teas
- Processed baked goods
- Frozen dinners
- Boxed macaroni and cheese
- Fast foods
- Non-dairy creamers
- Flavored waters
- Cheese sauces
In addition to containing high levels of sodium phosphate additives, processed foods are often high in sugar, fat, calories and preservatives, which aren’t good for your health.
Summary To cut your intake of sodium phosphate additives, avoid foods and beverages like soda, processed baked goods, frozen dinners and lunch meats.
Trisodium phosphate is an inorganic phosphate additive commonly added to processed foods.
While consuming small amounts of trisodium phosphate is safe, eating foods rich in phosphate additives on a daily basis could harm your health.
High phosphate levels have been linked to kidney disease, intestinal inflammation, decreased bone density, heart conditions and even premature death.
Limiting foods that contain trisodium phosphate and other phosphate additives is especially important for people with kidney disease, heart conditions, inflammatory bowel disease and osteoporosis.
Minimizing processed foods and focusing on natural sources of phosphorus, such as eggs, fish, beans and nuts, can help ensure that you are getting the right amount of phosphorus to help your body thrive.