Trisodium phosphate (TSP) in Cereal or In Food: Is it Really Safe?

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Trisodium phosphate (TSP) in Cereal or In Food: Is it Really Safe?

Trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a common food additive in cereal and other foods. TSP is used in cereal production to improve its color and help in the production process. Trisodium phosphate is also added to cheeses to improve their melting properties and help keep their shape. Some types of bread and pizzas contain TSP because it also acts as a leavening agent. You may also find trisodium phosphate listed as an ingredient in processed meat because it helps keep the processed meat moist.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved its use in the food industry, many people question if TSP is really safe in cereals. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists TSP as an irritant that can affect the skin and eyes. TSP is also added to industrial products like cleaning agents, soldering flux, and as a painting enhancement.

In fact, a quick internet search to get information if trisodium phosphate is safe to use will show results saying that TSP is a “paint thinner in cereal.”

Should you be concerned about trisodium phosphate in cereal or seeing it listed as an additive in other foods? What does scientific research really say about trisodium phosphate in food?

In this article, I will examine the claims about paint thinner in cereal and if TSP in your bowl of Cheerios or Lucky Charms is something you should worry about.

What is Trisodium Phosphate?

Trisodium phosphate (Na3PO4) is an inorganic compound and a type of phosphoric acid. Phosphate compounds are commonly used in the food industry as acidity regulators.1

The National Center for Biotechnology Information says that TSP is also referred to as sodium phosphate tribasic. Trisodium phosphate also has many uses in manufacturing and food industries. For example, trisodium phosphate is used as a paint additive, anti-scaling agent, cleaning product, and as a food additive.2

What is food grade trisodium phosphate?

Food grade trisodium phosphate means that the chemical compound is processed to high enough standards so that it’s suitable for use in food production.

The FDA says that food-grade means that the material is safe for human consumption and does not pose a risk if it comes into contact with food products.3

Regarding the question if trisodium phosphate in food is safe to eat, the FDA says that sodium phosphate is generally recognized as safe when used in line with proper manufacturing practice.4

Trisodium Phosphate Uses

Let’s look in more detail at ways the food industry and other industries use TSP in their manufacturing process.

TSP as a food additive

Most people want to know if trisodium phosphate is safe to consume when it is used as a food additive.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, food manufacturers use TSP as a food additive for a number of reasons, including:2

  • TSP is a food thickener
  • To help stabilize processed foods (emulsifier)
  • To regulate acidity in processed foods
  • To help improve food texture

Later in the article, I will look in more detail as to why TSP is used in some cereals and the types of foods where trisodium phosphate is commonly used as a “food enhancer.”

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In the European Union, trisodium phosphate food additive is listed as E339.4

Power surface cleaner

Trisodium phosphate also has properties that make it an effective surface cleaner.

The journal Environmental Science & Technology reported that cleaning products containing TSP can help to effectively remove lead-contaminated dust. TSP cleaning products efficiently remove contaminants from hard surfaces like wooden floors, vinyl flooring, and also wallpaper.5

However, according to a report in the Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal, the use of phosphates in detergents and other cleaning products is on the decline. Even though phosphate-based cleaners are very effective, they are a major cause of environmental problems worldwide.6

Kills foodborne viruses

Trisodium phosphate is used to kill foodborne viruses from potentially contaminated meat and vegetables.

The journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease says that TSP is used to sterilize fruits and vegetables. Trisodium phosphate treatment destroys noroviruses and other viruses that can cause gastrointestinal upset.7

Also, the journal Food Science and Biotechnology says that trisodium phosphate solutions are commonly used to improve the shelf life of chicken breasts. It was found that dipping chicken breasts in TSP destroyed various bacterial pathogens. The result was that the shelf life of TSP-treated chicken breasts was improved by 12 days.8

Performance enhancer

Some athletes use sodium phosphate supplements to improve their performance and increase their anaerobic threshold.

For example, according to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, TSP can help to increase oxygen uptake. It was found that the trained cyclists who took TSP supplements showed increased power output and their performance endurance was increased.9

Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) in Cereal

Of course, the fact that trisodium phosphate in food is regulated by the FDA doesn’t mean that everyone wants to eat cereal containing TSP. In addition, when you look at the list of ingredients on a box of Cheerios or Lucky Charms, you will see that these are highly processed food items.

For example, trisodium phosphate in cereals is not the only additive that could have implications for your health. You may find that breakfast cereals contain high amounts of added sugar and corn syrup that can lead to obesity or increased blood glucose levels. Also, marketing phrases like “low fat” or “contains whole grains” may make you think that you are eating a healthy product, when, in fact, there may be only small amounts of grain.

At the end of the article, I will look in more detail at why TSP in cereal may be bad for you.

Does cereal really contain paint thinner?

No. Cereals do not contain paint thinners, even if trisodium phosphate is listed as an ingredient in the cereal.

The reason why some people claim that certain cereals contain paint thinner is because TSP is also an ingredient in some paint thinners. Paint thinners contain many poisonous ingredients that are never added to any type of breakfast cereal or any other type of food. There are also many other natural products that are safe to use when consumed properly but could cause health issues if they are abused.

TSP is commonly used in breakfast cereals and many countries have approved its use, therefore, many people agree to consume products with TSP.

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But does the fact that the FDA approves trisodium phosphates as “generally safe for consumption” mean that TSP isn’t harmful? Just because a substance is classed as “non-toxic” or “not poisonous” doesn’t mean that it can’t impact your health.

For example, the journal Seminars in Nephrology reported that added dietary phosphorus compounds can have a negative impact on the kidneys. In fact, people with kidney disease are recommended to reduce as much as possible foods (including “healthy” breakfast cereals) that have phosphates added. In fact, researchers have found that cereal grains can contain the highest concentrations of phosphorus compounds.10

Trisodium Phosphate in Food

Although trisodium phosphate in food may not be bad for you if manufacturers have followed appropriate practice, some researchers are concerned about its impact on general health.

Food grade trisodium phosphate tends to be in foods that are highly processed and are classed as “junk food.” It is known that many processed types of meat, sausages, and even breakfast cereals have little nutritional content and are “beefed-up” with sugars and fats. However, research points to the fact that TSP in processed food could pose a health risk.

For example, scientists reported in the journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt International that TSP in food can impact on the health of the general population. Even though phosphates from organic sources are necessary, inorganic added phosphates are not effectively absorbed in the body. The researchers concluded that phosphorous additives can be damaging to health.11

Although researchers say that added inorganic phosphates in food could account for more than 30% of the daily recommended intake of phosphates, scientists advise getting your daily phosphorus intake from organic sources.10

Why is trisodium phosphate added to foods?

If trisodium phosphate could pose some dangers to health, why is TSP used in food production in the first place?

TSP is commonly used as a preservative in the food industry to increase shelf life and destroy potentially harmful germs. Here is what scientists say are some of the reasons why TSP is added to certain foods:10, 11

  • Meat industry. TSP acts as a preservative agent where it can be injected into fresh meat to extend its shelf life. This also helps to improve the meat’s flavor, appearance, and tenderness.
  • Dairy products. Some dairy products like soft cheese or hard cheese contain trisodium phosphate to improve the melting process. Often, TSP is added to spreadable cheese to “improve” its texture.
  • Soft drink’s industry. Some flavored soft drinks and colas contain phosphorous additives to increase acidity and create a “fruity” flavor. Also, phosphates in colas prevent the beverage from turning pitch black.

Why Is There TSP (Trisodium Phosphate) in Cereal?

For many people, the greatest concern is the addition of trisodium phosphate in cereals, especially because they are popular with children. For many, breakfast is the most important meal of the day and should give us enough energy and nutrition to “kick start” the day.

Trisodium phosphate is in Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Crunch Toast, Golden Grahams, and some varieties of Cheerios. Many types of Cheerios contain tripotassium phosphate and I’ll discuss this chemical later in the article.

Trisodium phosphate is in cereal for a number of reasons. These include:

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  • TSP helps cereal flow through the extruder. Trisodium phosphate is often added to processed cereals to help the mixture keep its shape when being processed.12
  • Trisodium phosphates act as a cereal buffer. TSP helps to regulate acidity levels and preserve cereals to increase their shelf life.13
  • TSP in cereals is used as a leavening agent to give breakfast cereals a porous, crunchy structure.

There are other reasons why breakfast cereals containing TSP may not be as healthy for you as you thought. Scientific research has shown why certain breakfast cereals may not be good for you at all:

  • They can cause obesity. The journal Nutrition Reviews reports that refined cereals could cause obesity because they don’t provide satiety. This can lead to feelings of hunger and overeating.14
  • Many breakfast cereals are high in sugar. According to a study in 2017, cereals that target children are three times more likely to be high in sugar and sodium than other cereals. This high intake of hidden sugar puts individuals at a greater risk of obesity. Just 30 grams of some cereals could provide up to one-third of a child’s recommended daily sugar intake.15
  • Cereal nutrition information can be misleading. The British Journal of Nutrition reported that breakfast cereal packaging contains the most statements about being a “healthy” product. However, one-third of cereals marketed as “healthy” were actually in the “less-healthy” category.16

So, it seems that it’s not just trisodium phosphate in cereals that should be of a concern. The high salt and sugar content of some cereals and their low fiber content could mean that you are not getting the type of nutrition that you may think. Of course, not all breakfast cereals fall into this category and at the end of the article, you can find out about healthy breakfast options.

Foods That Contain Trisodium Phosphate

What are the main types of food that could contain trisodium phosphate? Here are some foods that you should check for the addition of trisodium phosphate (or, E339 in the EU) if you want to avoid this in your diet:17

  • Processed ham, sausages, and other types of meat
  • Canned fish
  • Soft drinks with a citrus flavor or colas
  • Some baked goods like bread, pizzas, or cakes
  • Fresh or frozen meat

Is Trisodium Phosphate in Food Bad for You?

Of course, trisodium phosphate in cereals or other foods certainly doesn’t mean that there is paint thinner in your breakfast. It’s important to remember that your cinnamon toast crunch or bowl of Cheerios only contain ingredients and additives that the FDA has approved.

However, there are some studies showing the potential harm of phosphate additives.

Increased cardiac risk

Researchers in the journal Advances Chronic Kidney Disease reported that sodium phosphates can impact on cardio health. It was found that inorganic phosphates can lead to cardiovascular calcification and increase the risk of heart attack. Researchers said that increased phosphate levels in the blood can lead to cardiovascular disease in people that don’t have kidney disease.18

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High sodium phosphate levels linked to kidney problems

The journal Advances Chronic Kidney Disease also reported that phosphorus-based additives can affect the health of the kidneys in healthy people. Scientists estimate that most individuals in the U.S. are consuming between 200 and 1,000 mg more than the recommended daily amount of phosphorus. This can negatively affect kidney function and increase blood pressure.19

High phosphate levels linked to cancer

Abnormal levels of trisodium phosphate could also put you at more risk of developing cancer. The journal BMC Cancer reported that high inorganic phosphate levels can increase the risk of certain cancers. Among the types of cancer that high levels of phosphorus were associated with were thyroid cancer, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, skin cancer, and pancreatic cancer.20

Tripotassium Phosphate (TKP) vs. Trisodium Phosphate

Tripotassium phosphate is also a type of inorganic phosphorus additive that is in many foods, including breakfast cereals. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, tripotassium phosphate is also used as an acidity regulator and stabilizer. It is also added to help prevent oxidation in foods to increase shelf life.21

Tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios is the main phosphorus additive, however some varieties of Cheerios have TSP instead.

Tripotassium phosphate has a different chemical composition to trisodium phosphate. However, being a phosphorous substance, foods and breakfast cereals containing tripotassium phosphate can also increase your phosphate levels.

Conclusion: Is TSP Safe to Eat?

Of course, the main question is: is trisodium phosphate safe to eat?

From one point of view, the FDA has approved TSP for its use in the food industry. This is allowed to improve the taste and color of cereals and preserve the texture and freshness of certain meats and cheeses. Like with most food additives, consuming small amounts probably won’t do any harm.

However, as many studies have shown, even small amounts of food additives like trisodium phosphate could have a negative impact on health. TSP in cereal or food could cause you to get higher than recommended levels of phosphates, even if it is food grade trisodium phosphate.

So, the question you should ask: do I want to consume chemical substances like TSP, especially if they don’t provide any nutritional value?

Better Breakfast Alternatives to Cereals Containing TSP

There are much better and healthier breakfast options than consuming cereals containing trisodium phosphates, artificial coloring, and hidden sugars.

Eggs for a healthy breakfast. Start your day with a boiled or poached egg. Consuming eggs in your diet is a great way to get healthy protein and other nutrients. They will also keep you feeling fuller for longer and help prevent snacking. You might also be surprised that eggs don’t contain as much “bad” cholesterol and fat as you may think.

Porridge. A bowl of oatmeal is a healthy breakfast option that gives your body plenty of nutrients and keeps you feeling full until lunchtime. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition reported that oatmeal is high in fiber and protein and low in sugar. Oatmeal helps to control appetite and increases satiety.22

Breakfast smoothies. For a nutritious healthy breakfast without any chemical additives, why not try out a green smoothie? These are low in sugar and fat but high in nutritional content. They will also help you flush toxins from your body and give you enough energy for the day.

Cereals with no TSP. Of course, not all breakfast cereals are bad and contain unwanted phosphorus additives. So, if a bowl of healthy cereal with milk or milk substitute is your morning choice, check the packaging carefully to see beyond the marketing hype.

Read my other related articles:

Medical Sources

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  2. NIH. Sodium phosphate, dibasic, anhydrous.
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  4. FoodGovUK. EU approved additives and E numbers.
  5. Environ Sci Technol.2006 Jan 15;40(2):590-4.
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  7. Foodborne Pathog Dis.2011 Jun;8(6):713-7.
  8. Food Sci Biotechnol. 2004 Aug; 13(4): 425–429.
  9. J Sci Med Sport.2008 Sep;11(5):464-8.
  10. Semin Nephrol. 2013 Mar; 33(2): 180–190.
  11. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012 Jan; 109(4): 49–55.
  12. J Agric Food Chem.2000 Mar;48(3):880-4.
  13. Foods. 2016 Jun; 5(2): 38.
  14. Nutr Rev.2000 Jun;58(6):163-9.
  15. Public Health Nutr.2017 Jun;20(8):1500-1512.
  16. Br J Nutr.2016 Sep;116(6):1087-94.
  17. NCBI. Preservation and physical property roles of sodium in foods.
  18. Adv Chronic Kidney Dis. 2011 Mar; 18(2): 113–119.
  19. Adv Chronic Kidney Dis. 2013 Mar; 20(2): 150–156.
  20. BMC Cancer. 2013; 13: 257.
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