What do chicken nuggets, meat, packaged meats, breakfast cereal and soft drinks all have in common? They’re all sources of a compound derived from phosphorus called phosphate. Food manufacturers add phosphates to processed foods for more flavor and to preserve products and keep them stable.
Health care practitioners have long advised people with kidney disease to avoid foods and beverages high in phosphorus and those with added phosphates since a high-phosphate diet is linked with greater mortality in people with abnormal kidney function. When your kidneys are diseased or damaged, they can’t remove phosphorus and phosphates as easily and they build up.
More recently, scientists have been looking at the effects phosphates have on normal, healthy people without kidney disease. What they’ve learned so far is in animals phosphates damage blood vessels and are linked with kidney disease, osteoporosis and heart disease.
High levels of dietary phosphorus and phosphates are hard on blood vessels too. They interfere with normal blood vessel function by reducing their ability to expand. This may explain the link between phosphorus and phosphate-rich diets and heart disease.
What about humans? Although there’s less research in humans, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and discussed in the Berkeley Wellness newsletter found a link between dietary phosphates and greater mortality in normal, healthy people. In addition, a study showed a connection between high phosphate levels and arterial calcification, a risk for heart attack, in healthy people without kidney disease.
As Dutch researchers quote in a 2012 study:
“More recent studies have shown that the association between high phosphate concentrations and higher mortality is not restricted to persons with renal disease; it can also be observed in persons with cardiovascular disease and even in the general population.”
Phosphorus versus Phosphates
Don’t knock phosphate and its derivatives completely, because they aren’t all bad. You need a certain amount of phosphorus and phosphates in your body to make ATP, the energy currency your body uses for muscle contraction and for healthy bones and teeth. It’s important to distinguish between phosphorus found naturally in a variety of unprocessed foods and free phosphates added to processed food products.
Phosphorus, in its natural state, is found in poultry, meat seafood, dairy products, beans, whole grains, seeds and nuts. This form is often referred to as organic phosphate. In contrast, packaged foods and beverages have inorganic phosphates added to them. These phosphate additives are easily absorbed by the intestinal tract and quickly enter the bloodstream. Although a number of packaged foods contain added inorganic phosphates as additives, soft drinks top the list of phosphate-rich foods.
What many people don’t realize is uncooked meat and poultry contains phosphate additives, even though they aren’t always listed on the label. When phosphates are listed, they’re not always easy to recognize. Any time you see an ingredient listed with the four letters “phos,’ you’re probably dealing with added phosphates. Processed cheese is another under-appreciated source of phosphate additives.
Other Problems Phosphates Cause
You get plenty of phosphorus, the organic form, naturally from foods. The amount you get by eating a healthy diet is more than enough to meet your body’s requirements. There’s no benefit, and potential harm, to getting inorganic phosphates from packaged foods and beverages.
According to a group of German researchers led by Professor Ritz, daily intake of phosphates has doubled since the 1990s. Along with concerns about heart disease, kidney and blood vessel damage and osteoporosis, consuming large amounts of phosphates may interfere with absorption of minerals your body needs such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. Plus, calcium and phosphorus are in a delicate equilibrium. If you consume too much phosphorus or phosphates, you need more calcium to avoid an imbalance.
Older people may be particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of added phosphates as their kidneys may have more problems clearing it.
Reducing the Amount of Phosphates in Your Diet
The best way to reduce the quantity of phosphate additives you’re exposed to is to avoid processed foods as much as possible, particularly processed cheese, soft drinks and processed meats. Frozen pizzas, ice cream, candy and breakfast cereals also commonly contain significant quantities of phosphate additives. Other “hidden” sources of phosphate additives include cereal bars, non-dairy creamers and bottled tea and coffee beverages. The underlying theme here is “processed” and “packaged.”
A trip to a fast food restaurant could also deliver an unhealthy dose of phosphate additives. From soft drinks to the meat served in fast food restaurants, you’re feasting on phosphates when you dine out at a fast food establishment. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing how much. That’s why many experts are pushing for labelling of phosphates, so you know how much you’re getting.
The Bottom Line
Phosphates aren’t necessarily just a problem for people with kidney disease – they may be a health threat to normal, healthy people as well. Although more research is needed, one thing is clear. Foods that contain phosphates are mostly processed food and fast food and aren’t good for you anyway.
Now you have another reason to avoid fast food and processed foods at the grocery store and choose whole foods without questionable additives like phosphates. If you have kidney disease, it’s absolutely essential that you avoid phosphates, but even if your kidneys are normal, it’s smart to avoid phosphate additives whenever possible.
NutritionFacts.org. “Where Are Phosphate Additives Found?”
Berkeley Wellness. “Phosphorus: Friend or Foe?”
University of Maryland Medical Center. “Phosphorus”
Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2009 Aug; 4(8): 1370-1373.
JASN July 2009 vol. 20 no. 71504-1512
Diet, Nutrients, and Bone Health. John J.B. Anderson, Sanford C. Garner, Philip J. Klemmer. CRC Press, Oct 11, 2011.
J Am Coll Nutr 2011;30:438S-48S.
Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2013 Oct;1301:29-35. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12300.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Soft Drinks and Disease”
Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012 Jan; 109(4): 49-55.
Published online 2012 Jan 27. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2012.0049.
Phosphate in Food is ‘Health Risk’ That Should be Labelled, Claim Researchers. Nathan Gray, 20-Feb-2012.