Too Much Phosphorus In Your Diet Can Be A Threat To Your Health
What we eat contributes or creates heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and obesity.
These serious health conditions are all related to our food.
We know that too much of the wrong food can create a number of serious health problems.
We also know these health conditions are the major cause of death in developed countries.
We create these conditions by eating food that has been processed thrown out of balance by the food industry.
What we don’t know is what those ingredients are, and why they are added to the food they manufacture for us.
The food industry does tell us these things are added for our benefit, to make it safe, to preserve the food, extend the shelf life, make it more affordable, and to taste better.
And the problem is almost always adding too much of a good thing, taking that natural food product away from what it was, taking it out of balance, and using chemicals to get the job done.
Phosphorus is one of those ingredients our bodies need to properly function, we need some every day. When we get too much of this necessary ingredient can make our bodies mal-function.
When we eat these processed foods, with too much of the right things, our bodies begin to adapt to these imbalances – and these adaptations create abnormal function.
What are the symptoms of too much phosphorus in your diet?
Common symptoms include
- joint pain,
- muscle pain, and
- muscle weakness.
- People with higher phosphorus levels can also experience itching and red eyes.
- Symptoms of more severe cases of high phosphorus may include severe constipation, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
So take a moment to think about this – the first three on this list are very common symptoms that many of us feel on any particular day with no reason to suspect a problem, maybe related to overuse at work or a weekend activity, not drinking enough water, or waking up stiff after falling asleep in an awkward position on the couch.
These would be the early symptoms that could be easily confused with so many other types of short-term problems that often go away by themselves in a few days. We commonly don’t give this a second thought.
That really applies to number four on the list, as well.
And when symptoms of number five show up, we all get more than a little nervous, we hope these symptoms clear up in a few days, and they usually do.
Think about that for a minute – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation – our first thoughts are that we have some digestive disorder, maybe ate some bad food, got the stomach flu. What do we do about that? If the symptoms are bad enough, we will stay home for a day or two and eat chicken soup – we don’t leave the house, don’t buy fast food, we eat what we have at home. We change our food intake, our diet, immediately and sometimes drastically, and our body cleans up in a day or so and we get better. Then we go back to our customary habits.
And that is the time when we need to be thinking about making diet changes on a permanent basis.
Here is why: The far more serious problems develop with no symptoms at all until they are very well-established. For example:
- Diabetes is a malfunction related to refined sugars and salt;
- Cardiovascular dis-eases like hardening of the arteries and heart attacks are malfunctions related to salt and bad fats;
- Osteoporosis is not a lack of calcium, it is an adaptation – a malfunction – where phosphorus in the bloodstream removes calcium from the bone, creating a condition where the bone becomes weak and brittle.
When the body does not function properly, these types of adaptations show up as dis-ease conditions.
These are called ‘metabolic diseases’; they are the chronic, dangerous, malfunctions that wreck our health and lead to early death, with pain and suffering along the way.
Over the past twenty years or so we have learned that higher levels of phosphorus contribute or cause a variety of health problems.
“We’ve known for a couple of decades now that people with chronic kidney disease tend to retain phosphorus, and that leads to cardiovascular disease and worsen kidney function,” says Jaime Uribarri, professor of nephrology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
My own interest in bone health and the bone loss of osteoporosis started in 2004 when I first read the Surgeon General’s Report on Bone Health The link between blood levels of calcium and phosphorus was discussed there, and it is clear that too much phosphorus contributes to bone loss; it is suggested that calcium is depleted with high levels of serum phosphorus.
What about people with normal kidneys? “The picture is not perfectly clear, but several pieces of evidence suggest harm,” explains nephrologist Geoffrey Block, associate clinical professor in medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
For example, among roughly 2,270 participants without kidney disease in the Framingham Heart Study, people with blood phosphorus levels at the higher end of the normal range (4 mg/dL or more) were twice as likely to be diagnosed with chronic kidney disease over the next 25 years.
Too much phosphorus might also damage the heart
Several studies report a higher risk of arterial stiffness (hardened arteries), heart failure, and death from cardiovascular disease in people who have higher blood phosphorus levels.
Natural Sources of Phosphorus in Food
Phosphorus occurs naturally in meat, poultry, grains, dairy, eggs, and many other foods.
If you follow the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ or any plan where you lean toward plants as your primary food and especially if you cook at home, none of this will be a problem for you.
Here’s why: It seems that high levels of sodium and phosphorus (and sugar) come primarily from processed foods, cans and boxes of prepared food we buy at the supermarket, and from the food they serve us at our favorite restaurants.
You may add a little iodized table salt or pink Himalayan salt on your food when eating at home, but it is not likely you add nearly as much salt to your own food as you get in a meal at almost any restaurant, or out of a package or can you buy at the grocery store.
And I don’t know anyone who sprinkles any sodium phosphate on their carrots, beans, or potatoes.
Phosphorus Added To Our Food
For many decades now, companies have been adding phosphorus-containing compounds to thousands of foods.
In a 2013 report of roughly 2,400 branded grocery items, 44% of the best selling grocery items contained phosphorus additives. The additives were particularly common in
- prepared frozen foods (72%),
- dry food mixes (70%),
- packaged meat (65%),
- bread & baked goods (57%),
- soup (54%), and
- yogurt (51%) categories.
(That was a few years ago – I haven’t found current numbers on this.)
Phosphoric Acid May Be In Beverages You Drink Every Day
Phosphoric acid is a clear liquid added to beverages as a ‘flavor enhancer’ – the acidity is what gives you that ‘bite’ on your tongue. It used to be added only to the dark colas such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and other dark beverages.
About ten years ago I began to find it added to other beverages on the supermarket shelf, such as Lipton’s Green Tea, something you would think of as a safe, clean, non-chemical, non-adulterated beverage.
From LiveStrong.com: “You might be wondering if Lipton Green Tea in a bottle is good for you. At first glance, you may assume that because it is green tea, it must be healthy, but after reading the list of Lipton Green Tea ingredients, you’ll see it’s no better than a can of soda.”
Lipton Green Tea Ingredients
“Lipton Green Tea with Citrus comes in a 20 fluid ounce bottle. Its list of ingredients reads: Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Green Tea, Sodium Hexametaphosphate and Ascorbic Acid (to protect flavor), Honey, Natural Flavors, Phosphoric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, and Potassium Sorbate (to preserve freshness), Calcium Disodium EDTA (to protect flavor), Caramel Color, Yellow 5, Blue 1.”
“Keep in mind that each 20 ounce bottle represents 2.5 servings. There are 80 calories per serving, or 200 per bottle, including 21 grams of sugar per serving, or a whopping 52.5 grams of sugar per bottle. That equals over 11 teaspoons of sugar per bottle.”
Sodium Phosphate Is Added To Thousands Of Food Products
Sodium phosphate refers to a variety of chemical combinations of sodium (salt) and phosphate (an inorganic, salt-forming chemical).
Food-grade sodium phosphate is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe for consumption.
The food industry has found it to be useful as an additive in processed food manufacturing. It an ingredient in many household products and medications.
Sodium phosphate can be found in fast food, deli meats, processed meats, canned tuna, baked goods, and other manufactured foods.
Sodium phosphate serves a variety of functions in the food industry:
- It thickens food. It stabilizes the texture of processed foods, such as mashed potato mixes.
- It cures meat and meat products. It helps to keep deli meats and bacon moist, avoiding spoilage.
- It is a leavening agent. It helps dough rise in commercially prepared cakes and breads and in cake mixes.
- It is an emulsifying agent. It acts as a stabilizer to keep oil and water mixed together in certain types of food, such as processed cheese.
- It balances pH levels in processed food. It stabilizes the balance between acidity and alkalinity, extending shelf life and improving taste.
Why does FDA allow companies to add phosphates to foods without showing they’re safe?
“Phosphates have so many different functions—homogenizing, smoothing, water retention, a leavening agent, and more,” says Mona Calvo, a nutrition scientist formerly at the Food and Drug Administration.
Several years ago, Alex Chang and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University looked at how much phosphorus people in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) ate. NHANES is a representative health survey of the U.S. public.
One out of three participants ate more than 1,400 mg of phosphorus a day— double the Recommended Dietary Allowance.
That’s disturbing because “above 1,400 milligrams of phosphorus a day or so, we started seeing an increased risk of dying over the next 15 years,” says Chang.
How might too much phosphorus harm kidneys?
High levels of phosphorus disrupt normal calcium functions and may calcify the kidneys, and the linings of the arteries. “As more phosphate goes through the kidney, it accelerates micro-calcification of the kidney’s tubules,” Block explains. That can depress kidney function and also increase the risk of fatal heart attacks.
Is the evidence strong enough to say that high phosphorus levels cause kidney damage? “We have a pretty universal agreement that phosphates added to foods could cause harm,” says Block. “But the data are not conclusive.”
We know that high blood levels of phosphorus pull calcium out of the bones, and it is up to the kidneys to get rid of any calcium in the blood serum that is higher than normal – too much calcium interferes with muscle function and can cause muscle cramps, and it also interferes sodium balances. All of these can mess with the nerve system, which can contribute to night sweats, sleeping all night and waking up tired, muscle tics or twitches, heart arrhythmia, and much more.
The normal function of all body systems requires balance, and when these minerals – sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and others – when these get out of balance the body simply cannot work the way it should.
Since about 1999, the USDA has been gathering information regarding vitamin and mineral intake in a ‘normal’ population here in the United States. (We don’t know what ‘normal’ is.)
They have to start somewhere to find some answers. Scientists need to see if people without kidney disease who consume more phosphorus are at greater risk to develop kidney disease later on.
I found this chart at USDA.gov – there is a link below it so you can see the full-sized pages of this little-known report.
This particular chart shows that every group of people measured takes in higher amounts of phosphorus than are recommended.
Knowing how much phosphorus people eat is nearly impossible.
For instance, we absorb more phosphorus from some sources than from others.
“The naturally occurring phosphate in plants is less well absorbed than phosphate in animal protein,” says Uribarri. “And the phosphate added in food processing is much better and rapidly absorbed than the phosphate in its natural state. So just asking people what they eat may not give you the best picture.”
In addition, phosphate levels vary widely from one brand to another. And as I mentioned above with phosphoric acid being added to green tea, phosphorus is showing up in unexpected foods.
Plus, food manufacturers know that salt and sugar sells food – and sodium phosphate and phosphoric acid help as ‘flavor enhancers’ to sell more food.
And there are companies whose job it is to develop new foods to sell, and they change ingredients and test these new foods to focus groups until they get it right.
Some folks are trying to get Nutrition Facts labels on food packages to say how much phosphorus a food contains. That information is important for people with kidney disease, many of whom have to limit phosphorus.
According to Kidney.org, “Potassium and phosphorus may be listed as percent daily values, but it is not required.”
(Starting in 2018, manufacturers were required to list potassium.) So remember, if phosphorus is not listed, it does not mean that it is not in that food.
Without food labeling, “it’s impossible for people to restrict their phosphate intake to a certain level,” says Block. “Honestly, there is no way a human being can figure it out.”
A more basic question: Why does the Food and Drug Administration allow companies to add phosphates to foods without showing that levels in the food supply are safe?
“We’re exposing people to a possible risk for decades without doing anything,” says Block. “The onus should be on companies to show that the phosphates added to foods don’t cause harm.”
What You Can Do NOW About Too Much Phosphorus
The links between high intake of phosphates or high phosphorus levels in the blood are linked to a higher risk of health problems and early death, but we need more research to know whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship.
Registered dietitian Lisa Gutekunst is part of a research group investigating the impact of phosphate additives on our health.
She asks, “What are these phosphate additives adding to the diet nutritionally? Nothing. Therefore, recommending that people limit their exposure to them may have a benefit.”
Tips to limit phosphate additives – How to avoid too much phosphorus in your diet
While phosphorus amounts aren’t typically provided in the nutrition facts label, phosphate additives are listed in the Ingredients List.
Gutekunst recommends you take the time to look for any word that contains “phos-” in the ingredients list on everything from yogurt and cereal to iced tea. Phosphate additives go by many different names, but seeing “phos” is a sure sign there are some in that product. “Look for an alternative product that doesn’t use those additives,” she advises.
Another tip: Look for a nutrition label on your meat, poultry or fish. If the sodium content is more than 120 mg for a 4-ounce portion, you know it’s been enhanced with something — potentially a phosphate salt.
When it comes to avoiding phosphate additives and eating well in general, the best advice is to gain control over what you eat.
- Buy simple, plain, good food and put the ingredients together yourself at home;
- Make your lunch and take it to work with you.
- If you don’t cook – and it is clear a whole lot of people do not – watch some ‘how to cook’ videos, or even better, take a beginner’s cooking class.
- Prepare your own fresh foods and avoid processed, packaged foods as much as possible.
I know it takes time to prepare food and cook it, and the benefits are huge for this small trade-off.
It so often is the case that you give up money to save time, or give up time to save money.
In this case, you will be using your time, saving money, and improving your health in measurable ways.
This is real health insurance.
- High dietary phosphorus intake is associated with all-cause mortality
- Phosphate Additives in Food – A Health Risk
- Why phosphate additives will be the next taboo ingredient
- Increasing dietary phosphorus intake from food additives: potential for negative impact on bone health.
- Bone Health and Osteoporosis: A Report of the Surgeon General
- The Prevalence of Phosphorus Containing Food Additives in Top Selling Foods in Grocery Stores
- Dietary Phosphorus Intake and the Kidney
- The Metabolic Syndrome and Cardiovascular Risk
- Eur. J. Heart Fail. 12: 812, 2010;
- Am. J. Kidney Dis. 64: 567, 2014;
- Diabetes, Kidney and Heart Disease: Too Much Phosphorus In Your Diet - January 11, 2020
- Harvard: In Defense of French Fries - January 5, 2020
- Health Question – Avocados Are Good For You: Yes or No? - December 21, 2019