“Phosphates” has become one of those scary-sounding substances that has some people worried. But really it’s phosphate additives people should be wary of.
And yes, there is a difference.
In their natural form phosphates are chemical compounds made of oxygen and phosphorus. If you’ve taken biology or chemistry classes, you might remember phosphorus from the Periodic Table of Elements.
Phosphates are minerals our bodies need to maintain healthy teeth, bones, heart function, muscles and blood vessels. Not consuming enough phosphates can have severe consequences, including anemia, muscle weakness, bone pain and much more.
Like with any essential nutrient, it’s all about balance. Staff from the Linus Pauling Institute, a respected micronutrient research center in Oregon State University, stated that healthy adults should ingest about 700 mg of phosphorus a day. More than 4,000 mg a day can be dangerous.
Most of the staples we eat contain phosphates, so it’s not like you’ll need to go out of your way to reach that daily recommendation. Here are a few of those common foods and ingredients:
- milk and milk products
With natural phosphates our bodies absorb between 40 and 60%. You would need to eat a ton of natural phosphate sources every day to experience any immediate health risks. Phosphate additives, however, are a different story.
Phosphate Additives: The Synthetic Version of Phosphates
When people talk about “phosphates” being problematic, usually they’re referring specifically to phosphate additives in food products. These ingredients are synthetic versions of phosphates that can easily bond with other substances such as salt, calcium, oil and vitamins.
Despite this reputation, there are different types of phosphate additives used across several industries and for many purposes. Here is a quick breakdown of some synthetic forms and the products they tend to be included in:
- Orthophosphates: detergents
- Pyrophosphates: water treatment, metal cleaning
- Tripolyphosphates: meat processing, dish detergent
- Polyphosphates: kaolin (a type of clay) production
Phosphate Additives in Food and Food Products
In the food industry phosphate additives are a popular ingredient because they are cheap and versatile. Phosphate additives can:
- Keep food moist for a longer period of time
- Improve the taste and texture of food
- Preserve food and extend expiration dates
- Make food taste creamier
- Maintain juiciness of meat
- Help with meat processing
- Prevent beverages from separating into their ingredients
- Adjust the acidity of food and beverages
- Boost nutrients such as calcium
Because of these diverse qualities, phosphate additives are everywhere. If you visit a local supermarket, you’ll find them in:
- Processed meats (ham, bacon, processed chicken, processed fish, sausages, salami, frozen beef burgers, meats in tins such as spam and corned beef, etc.)
- Processed cheeses, usually in slices or shredded instead of whole
- Soda and other fizzy drinks (in this case it’s phosphoric acid)
- Certain types of bread and bakery products such as scones
- Instant sauces and puddings
- Cake mixes
- Instant mashed potatoes
- Certain cereals and breakfast treats such as Cheerio’s, Coco Pops, Pop Tarts, instant breakfasts, etc.
- Breakfast mixes for waffles and pancakes
- Bottled coffee beverages
- Ice tea
- Milkshakes and hot chocolate
- Energy drinks
- Flavored water
Why Phosphate Additives Aren’t So Healthy
Besides the association with many of the unhealthy foods and products listed above, phosphate additives are inherently less healthy than natural phosphates. Our bodies retain roughly 90% of phosphate additives, as opposed to 40 to 60% from natural phosphates.
This higher level of absorption makes it easy for us to blow past the recommended daily intake of 700 mg. The average daily phosphate consumption is 1,550 mg for men and 1,000 for women, according to a study conducted in 2003.
Since then the amount of phosphate additives in our food has risen. The National Health Service Foundation Trust estimated that around 50% of the phosphates in most diets comes from additives.
Consuming too many phosphates is not good for blood flow or heart health, and it can be hazardous for people with chronic kidney disease.
How to Avoid and Limit Phosphate Additives
If you want to look out for additives, the simplest strategy is to limit how much you eat the items above. You can also abstain from products with any ingredient that has “phos” in it.
Here are some specific ingredients that should pop up:
- Phosphoric acid
- Sodium phosphates
- Potassium phosphates
- Calcium phosphates
- Ammonium phosphates
- Magnesium phosphates
- Dicalcium diphosphates
- Sodium aluminum phosphates
- Monostarch phosphates
- Phosphated distarch phosphate
To further avoid phosphate additives and reduce intake, follow these tips and food recommendations:
- Choose USDA organic certified foods and food products.
- If possible, spend a little more on fresh or higher quality meats that haven’t been processed.
- Go with hard cheeses over sliced.
- Pick fresh vegetables.
- Making something yourself from basic, healthy ingredients means no phosphate additives.
- If you like fast food, reserve it as an occasional treat, not a regular part of your diet.
Phosphates Can Negatively Impact Aquatic Environments
Like our bodies, the environment doesn’t respond well to an oversaturation of phosphates, both synthetic and natural. There are many sources of phosphates that reenter local ecosystems, including human and animal waste, fertilizer runoff and sewage from laundry and dishwashing. These materials often drain into lakes and accelerate eutrophication, the process of aquatic environments developing excess algae that ultimately kills wildlife and emits carbon dioxide.
As a consumer you can reduce this negative impact by purchasing garden fertilizers and detergents that don’t contain phosphates. With most of these products you can scan for sustainability claims such as biodegradability and being greywater-friendly. Some detergent brands include labels that claim their products don’t use phosphates.
We Need Phosphates, But Not Too Much
Dealing with phosphates is all about balance. They are essential nutrients for our bodies and the environment, but an overload can be harmful.
By watching what we put in our mouths, dishwashers and washing machines, we can eat healthier, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and protect aquatic ecosystems. The bottom line is that less phosphate additives is a win for every living creature.
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