Trisodium phosphate (TSP) in cereal: Is this additive dangerous?

Should you be afraid of trisodium phosphate in your cereal?

Trisodium phosphate (TSP) in cereal: Is this additive dangerous?

Media headlines state: “Cheerios contain Round-up!” Poor Cheerios get a bad rap for containing pesticides. Years ago, it was acrylamide. And now it’s “Cereals contain paint-thinner.”   What they mean, is that cereal (and many other processed foods) contain an additive called Trisodium Phosphate (TSP).

Are there real health risks with TSP or is it more fear-creating, click-bait headlines?. Read on to find out if you should trash your cereal (and basically most processed food products) that contain TSP.

What is Trisodium Phosphate?

Lots of processed foods contain TSP. Popular cereals, processed cheese, jams, pop, processed meats, fast food and more. contain TSP as a food preservative. Sodium phosphate additives are a combination of sodium and phosphate.

Trisodium phosphate is used as a thickening agent and to regulate acidity in foods. This can extend the shelf-life of products – and help ensure food safety.

Phosphate comes from phosphorus, which is a mineral needed in our bodies for bone health, acid-base balance and more.

Most phosphorus is stored in our bones in the body. And we get rid of excess through the kidneys.

Sources of natural phosphate in our diet

Dairy products beans, nuts and meat naturally contain phosphate.

For some examples:

1.5oz of cheese contains about 250mg 

3/4 cup beans contain about 180mg

1/4 cup sunflower seeds contain about 380mg

1.5oz salmon contains about 190mg

This type of naturally occurring phosphorus is known as “organic.”   As you can see, our intake of phosphates is not just from processed foods! Thirty to 60% of natural organic phosphate is absorbed. And animal sources are absorbed more easily than plant sources. 

Trisodium phosphate in cereal – how much is there?

Cheerios contain 10% DV for phosphorus according to the nutrition facts label. This is about 125 mg per cup. Table 1 on this site shows the phosphorus content of breakfast cereals.

It seems to range from about 50mg to 233mg (Kellogg’s All Bran -generally considered a healthy cereal).

The type of phosphorus found in food additives like TSP is called “inorganic” phosphorus. 

The concern with inorganic phosphate used in additives is that 90% or more of it is absorbed by our bodies.

Is excess phosphorus being absorbed dangerous?

First of all, before allowing a food additive, Health Canada looks at any nutritional effects. And how much we may be exposed to, plus the potential safety concerns.

And TSP is categorized as “Generally Recognized as Safe (or GRAS) by food regulators across the world.

The Recommended Daily Intake for phosphorus is 700mg/day. And the Upper Tolerable Limit of phosphorus for adults is 4000 mg per day.

How much phosphorus do we eat?

One study looking at food records of over 9,600 healthy Americans found that only 0.2% of participants exceeded the upper tolerable limit of 4000mg per day. But thirty-five percent of participants consumed >2 times the recommended intake (or 1400mg +). While not a gold standard Randomized control trial study (which is tough to do in nutrition), this was a large study. They found that those taking in over 1400mg phosphorus per day had a higher mortality rate.   Doesn’t sound good, does it?!

Another concern about high dietary phosphate intake is that research has shown it may cause cardiovascular disease. But other studies have shown a decreased risk of heart disease with increased phosphorus intakes! This paper does a good job of discussing what we know and have yet to learn in terms of phosphate and heart health.   One concern for the population, in general, is that while phosphorus intakes have been increasing, calcium intakes have been decreasing.

High phosphorus intake AND low calcium intake can lead to increased levels of parathyroid hormone. Which may cause calcium loss from the bone, and hence weak bones.

Who is excess phosphorus especially dangerous for?

The good news is, we can excrete small amounts of excess phosphorus through urine. That is if we have functioning kidneys.

High levels of blood phosphorus is a problem for people with chronic kidney disease. Those with renal disease have decreased ability for excretion of phosphate (organic or inorganic) at normal levels. They need a low-phosphate diet.


For those of us without health issues (namely kidney disease), excess phosphorus shouldn’t be a huge concern. But it does seem that we may need to be concerned with lower bone density (at lower intakes of calcium).

However, at high intakes (more than double the recommended intake), excess phosphorus may be a health concern. This could be easy to achieve if you consume lots of processed foods (remember, this is absorbed at higher rates than naturally occurring phosphorus in foods)

The problem is, we need more and better research and don’t have a lot of conclusions yet. Surprise!

The good news is that we all get to make decisions that we feel comfortable with for our families. It’s part of our job as a parent to decide what foods we bring into the house.

Overall, I don’t believe that eating a bowl of Cheerios is dangerous. Whether it be from acrylamide, pesticides or TSP.

Of course, it’s great to go for non-processed foods when you can, for many reasons. But I’d be more concerned with the added salt and sugar (and lack of fibre and nutrients) in most processed foods, than with the added preservatives. Especially if the majority of your diet is non-processed food.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below! Want more tips for feeding your family? Join my Facebook Group over at The Nourished Family, where we regularly chat about meal planning and picky eating.

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