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Should you be afraid of trisodium phosphate in your cereal?

Jul 04, 2019

Recent headlines state: "Cheerios contain Round-up!" 

Poor Cheerios get a bad rap. Years ago, it was acrylamide. And how it's pesticides.

Fellow dietitian Abby Langer did a great job of summarizing why the pesticide/glycosophate issue shouldn't worry you in this blog.  I 100% agree, that the fear around pesticides on food is not worth your stress.

But another concern I hear from parents is about about Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) in cereals and other processed foods.

I wanted to learn more about this preservative and if there are real health concerns. So, read on to find out if you should trash your cereal (and basically most processed foods) that contain TSP!

What is Trisodium Phosphate?

Lots of processed foods contain TSP. It's a food additive found in cereal, processed cheese, jams, pop, processed meats, fast food and more. It is a combination of sodium and phosphate. 

Phosphate comes from phosphorus, which is a mineral needed in our bodies for bone health, acid base balance and more.

In our bodies, most phosphorus is stored in our bones. And we can get rid of excess  through the kidneys.

Phosphate is naturally found in dairy, beans, nuts and meat. This type of phosphorus is known as "organic." 

The type of phosphorus found in food additives like TSP is called "inorganic" phosphorus. It can be used as a thickening agent and to regulate acidity in foods. This can extend the shelf-life of products - and help ensure food safety.

Thirty to 60% of natural organic phosphate is absorbed. Animal sources are absorbed more easily than plant sources. The concern with inorganic phosphate used in additives is that 90% or more of it is absorbed by our bodies.

So, is excess phosphorus being absorbed dangerous?

First of all...before allowing a food additive, Health Canada looks at any nutritional effects. And how much we may be exposed to, plus the potential safety concerns.

TSP is categorized as "Generally Recognized as Safe (or GRAS) by food regulators across the world.

The Recommended Daily Intake for phosphorus is 700mg/ day. And the Upper Tolerable Limit of phosphorus for adults is 4000 mg per day.

How much do we take in? One study looking at food records of over 9,600 healthy Americans found that only 0.2% of participants exceeded this upper tolerable limit. But thirty five percent of participants consumed >2 times the recommended intake (or 1400mg +).

While not a gold standard RCT study (which is tough to do in nutrition), this was a large study and found that those taking in over 1400mg phosphorus per day had a higher mortality rate. Doesn't sound good, does it?!

Another concern about high phosphorus intakes, is that research has shown it may cause cardiovascular disease. 

But other studies have shown decreased risk of heart disease with increased phosphorus intakes! This paper does a good job of discussing what we know and have yet to learn in terms of phosphate and heart health. 

One concern for the population in general, is that while phosphorus intakes have been increasing, calcium intakes have been decreasing.  High phosphorus intake AND low calcium intake can lead to increased levels of a different hormone (parathyroid hormone). Which may cause calcium loss from the bone, and hence weak bones.

Who is excess phosphorus especially dangerous for?

Luckily at increased phosphorus intakes, a hormone called fibroblast growth factor 23 (FGF23) will decrease its absorption. And at low levels, it works to increase phosphorus absorption. 

We can also excrete small amounts of excess phosphorus through urine. That is, if we have functioning kidneys.

High levels of blood phosphorus is mainly an issue for people with end-stage kidney disease. They can't excrete extra phosphorus (organic or inorganic), so need to limit intake.


It's a bit confusing, I agree.

For those of us without kidney disease, excess phosphorus shouldn't be a huge concern. But it does seem that at we may need to be concerned with bone loss (at lower intakes of calcium).

However at high intakes (more than double the recommended intake), excess phosphorus may be a health concern.

The problem is, we need more and better research and don't have a lot of conclusions yet. Surprise!

The good news is that we all get to make decisions that we feel comfortable with for our families. It's part of our job as a parent to decide what foods we bring in the house.

I don't believe that eating a bowl of Cheerios a few times a month (or even daily) is dangerous. Whether it be from acrylamide, pesticides or TSP. 

Of course it's great to go for non-processed foods when you can, for many of reasons. But I'd be more concerned with the added salt and sugar (and lack of fibre and nutrients) in most processed foods, than with the added preservatives.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Want more tips for feeding your family? Join my Facebook Group over at The Nourished Family, where we regularly chat meal planning and picky eating.


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