Do you know trisodium phosphate in cereal can cause kidney disorders?

Incidence rates of phosphate nephropathy are increasing in the US. The condition results in acute kidney failure as a result of the damage to the kidneys from phosphate crystals. Does any of this ring a bell somewhere? It is highly unlikely for awareness about this to be common among the general public. However, knowledge about the condition may actually help save a life or prevent unwanted medical complications, especially if you happen to consume baked/processed food. Let’s dive deeper to understand the connection.

Trisodium phosphate in cereal – the necessary ingredient, but only in moderate quantities

Processed food and baked food products involve the use of additives for enhancing shelf life, locking in the flavor and to help improve the texture of the food product. And this is without exceptions unless otherwise mentioned specifically. This effectively means that almost all products that you use as a matter of routine are likely to have this ingredient. The ingredient has been the subject of research and studies, regarding its impact on health. The US Food and Drug Administration has issued safety communication regarding the use of oral sodium phosphates. There is a clear warning that high quantities of sodium phosphates can have an adverse impact on the kidneys, heart and can possibly turn fatal, depending on the dosage.  

However, trisodium phosphate in cereal or any processed food/baked food is not in very high quantities. This, therefore, makes it safe to consumed processed food, BUT only when in moderation. The moment the consumption crosses a threshold, the quantity of sodium phosphate moves into levels that can seriously impact health. So, what exactly are sodium phosphates? Let’s take a granular look at this ingredient that stirred debates and studies globally.

What is the role of trisodium phosphate in cereal and in other food products?

An inorganic compound, Trisodium Phosphate is highly soluble crystalline, the result of combining sodium with a derivative of phosphorous. Both phosphorous and sodium are necessary for good health – bones, energy storage, and protein synthesis. Therefore, trisodium phosphate in cereal is not harmful per se but will turn harmful when your routine diet involves the consumption of various processed foods and baked food products. In addition to the overall role in health, the ingredient is important for retaining moisture and for protecting the flavor of food that is packed, stored and used long after it has been packed. This additive extends the shelf life of products and is also a leavening agent for baked products. 


Is it just brouhaha? Or is there a reason to be careful?

The narrative is in the numbers. In the year 2019, the number of Americans who consumed cereal for breakfast was a little under 285 million. This clearly indicates that cereals are intrinsic to the American diet. Therefore, it is important to understand if trisodium phosphate in cereal is harmful enough to stop consumption, or should there be moderation or changes to the diet. The actual impact of sodium phosphates is primarily due to phosphate crystal deposition in the kidneys. As a consequence of this, your kidneys are exposed to damage, impaired functioning and possible failure. The common observation in patients who have reported this condition is the presence of phosphate deposits in the distal tubules and collecting ducts. This is precisely why the US FDA has issued a warning about the use of oral sodium phosphate solutions, especially in bowel cleansing procedures.

Why is it sometimes labeled as a cleaning agent or paint thinner?

You are likely to have come across posts that actually claim that the trisodium phosphate in cereal is a paint thinner or a cleaning agent. While it is not entirely correct to say that you are consuming paint thinner when you have cereal, there is a reason for concern. TSP, as Trisodium Phosphate is commonly known, is in fact an ingredient in cleaning solutions. However, there is a difference between food grade TSP and the TSP used in cleaning products. It is diluted, purified and the quantity is very less, unlike the chemical of technical grade used in cleaning solutions. As a common ingredient in thinners, cleaning agents and processed food, it has often been labeled negatively. However, mere consumption of breakfast cereal once a day without consuming other processed food or baked food is certainly not going to harm you. It can only turn harmful when the quantity exceeds a certain limit.

If it were entirely true that trisodium phosphate in cereal was dangerous at all levels of intake, then all those individuals who regularly consume cereal for breakfast may have ended up in hospitals with kidney damage. However, it is entirely true that the additive can cause damage when higher quantities are consumed. This effectively means that if you are the type who lives off processed foods and store baked products, the probability of exposure to damage over an extended period exists. 

What do you need to do to counter the effects of trisodium phosphate in cereal?

Well, you really do not have to resort to any kind of medical intervention to counter the effects of trisodium phosphate in cereal. All that you need to do is ensure that your dietary intake does not entirely depend on processed food or store baked products. The absorption levels of sodium phosphate from such products are higher than the absorption levels in natural products, and consequently, this results in higher concentration levels of sodium phosphate. Therefore, on any given day if your breakfast comprises cereals, then avoid store baked products and processed foods for that day. On days that your breakfast does not include cereals, go for store baked products or processed food. Patients who are recommended oral sodium phosphates for bowel cleansing procedures, need to avoid cereals, processed food and store baked products for the period. This is important to ensure that you do not end up with high concentration levels. Remember, your body requires phosphorous and sodium for maintaining good health. However, you need to ensure that you consume only moderate levels, without overdoing it. Maintain a healthy intake level and the trisodium phosphate in cereal will cause no harm; exceed the intake levels and you will join a large number of people with renal impairment.


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