What Is Trisodium Phosphate And Is It Bad For You?

In today’s world of processed meals, purchasing fresh and buying whole foods at farmers’ markets are popular trends. Checking ingredient labels has seemingly become second nature in recent years. Long ingredient lists laden with unpronounceable additives are something many food experts warn against, as most chemical additives feature a variety of health-unfriendly properties. If checking ingredient labels is a frequent practice in your household, you may be wondering what trisodium phosphate, or TSP, does to the human body. Trisodium phosphate is commonly used in commercial cereals and meats among other processed foods, thus it should be an additive that consumers are aware of and on the lookout for.

What Is Trisodium Phosphate & Its Applications?

Trisodium phosphate uses traditionally revolved around industrial and residential cleaning. As an ingredient in detergents, degreasers, and mildew removers, this powerful chemical features alkalinizing properties that made it popular in laundry detergents and dishwashing liquids since alkaline cuts through grease and oil. It was also used as a paint prep agent on interior and exterior walls and mixed with bleach to create a strong mold cleaner. However, it is not recommended for wood cleaning because of staining properties, nor is it used on metal or glass due to damage and filmy residue, respectively.

TSP was deemed harmful by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 and is listed as a “hazardous substance” under the agency’s Clean Water Act. The Center For Disease Control also discourages trisodium phosphate cleaner uses and lists shock, burning sensations, abdominal pain, and collapse as reactions to ingestion. 

Why Is Trisodium Phosphate In Food?

In addition to its many cleaning applications, trisodium phosphate is surprisingly utilized as a food additive. It is called E339 when used for food purposes. Main utilizations include its functions as a thickening agent, acidity regulator, emulsifier, and nutritional enlargement product. Most common foods containing the additive include meat, cheese, and baked goods. The chemical holds moisture in meat, whether stored or cooked, and helps cheese maintain its shape and melting abilities. It is used as a leavening agent in bread, cake, muffins, and similar products.

Trisodium phosphate in cereal is yet another common food application. The chemical makes minor changes to improve dry, extruded cereal color while also promoting the product’s flow through extruder equipment. Further cereal uses include phosphorus fortification.

Commercial cereals featuring this additive include Cheerios (all kinds), Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Kix (all kinds), Mom’s Best Cereals, Trader Joe’s O’s (all kinds), Trix, Lucky Charms, Honeycomb, Wheaties, Total Raisin Bran, Cookie Crisp, Dora The Explorer Cereal, Reese’s Puffs, Golden Grahams, SpongeBob SquarePants Cereal, and Heart Healthy Cereal.

Additional popular foods containing trisodium phosphate include lunch meat, ham, and other processed meats, rice syrup, canned soups, pizza dough, cake mixes, cheese sauces, and baked goods.

Almost any food requiring processing and freezing features this additive. Despite warnings from the EPA and CDC, the chemical is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food industry use. Trisodium phosphate’s reach even extends to the nutritional supplements many professional athletes use to enhance or support their physical abilities.

The European Union also approves the chemical’s presence in food.

Is Trisodium Phosphate Bad For You?

Trisodium phosphate in food is deemed problematic by many health experts because of the potential health risks it can cause. It is believed to cause kidney damage, soft tissue calcification, and bone calcium removal. Continuous ingestion over a long period of time is linked to bone density diseases such as osteoporosis. Trisodium phosphate side effects also include intestinal and stomach lining irritation, and lactic acid reduction in muscles.

Side effects from trisodium phosphate poisoning via accidental ingestion or inhalation of the chemical include breathing difficulties, coughing, and throat pain and swelling. Poisoning affects the eyes, nose, and ears via drooling, severe pain, and vision loss. It may also affect the stomach, intestines, blood, and heart. Symptoms can include low blood pressure, blood in the stool, vomiting, diarrhea, shock, and collapse among others.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a person can safely consume up to 70 grams of the additive every day without risking health issues. However, the fact that so many popular foods contain TSP is concerning, making it difficult to regulate one’s daily intake. It is possible to ingest high amounts on a daily basis without realizing it, especially among those who enjoy processed meats and cheeses.

Tips For Avoiding Trisodium Phosphate Food Grade Products

Avoiding this food additive can be challenging; however, several key behavioral changes can make the transition easier. If meat and cheese are staple foods in your home, shop through your local farmers’ market instead of the grocery store. Most farmers’ markets sell meat and cheese in addition to fruit  and produce. Making a point of limiting processed foods as much as possible is also suggested. Go for whole foods, including plenty of vegetables and fruits, to maintain a healthy body. Grow what you can and “shop local” frequently to ensure the produce you consume is fresh and free of insecticides, pesticides, and other chemicals. If cereal is a morning staple, visit your local natural grocery store for a variety of organic options. Make a list of cereals containing this harmful food additive to avoid, and take this list with you on shopping trips.

The less processed foods you consume overall, from commercial cereals to frozen dinners, the healthier you will be. Processed foods are known weight gain triggers, and are known to contain high amounts of sodium and salt. 

Substitute Options

Zeolite and soda ash are among the recommended TSP cleaning substitutes. Zeolites, for example, are used in laundry detergents as bulking agents. Sodium carbonate is another potential substitute; however, it is not as powerful as trisodium phosphate.

While trisodium phosphate is not harmful in small doses, large amounts can cause acute as well as long-term health effects. Educating yourself about this chemical additive and avoiding processed foods are among the best ways to limit your intake.