People are more and more intent on checking the labels of the produce they buy, and with good reason. Oftentimes, there are ingredients that look like they don’t belong in our food. More recently, people have started noticing trisodium phosphate in cereal, when reading a Lucky Charms cereal label. That lead to quite a controversy, since this is a common cleaning agent and stain remover. Today, we are going to take a closer look at what trisodium phosphate really is, what people use it for, and if it is dangerous or not to our health.

white trisodium phosphate powder

What Is Trisodium Phosphate?

Trisodium phosphate (also called TSP, trisodium orthophosphate, or sodium phosphate) is an inorganic compound that comes either as white granules, or as a white crystalline solid. When you mix it with water, this compound forms an alkaline solution.

What Is TSP Normally Used for?

Usually, people use trisodium phosphate in the cleaning industry, as a stain remover, degreasing agent, and so on. Manufacturers also used to use it in the making of detergents and soaps. However, this is no longer the case, since specialists raised environmental and ecological concerns. Which begs the question, how can something be unsafe as a household cleaning products and safe as a food additive? Even now, we still find TPS in products such as shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash, hair dye and bleach, and cosmetics.

Many products, in a range of industries, include trisodium phosphate as an ingredient. The two primary uses for it are as a cleaning agent and a food additive. Industrial grade cleaners include trisodium phosphate to break down grease or oils. Different types of acid cleaners, water softener chemicals and brighteners include the compound. Health care facilities and professional cleaners use it in laundry detergents. Commercial dairies and food processors also use trisodium phosphate to sanitize equipment. In poultry production, the application of a diluted trisodium phosphate to freshly slaughtered birds controls bacteria growth on the carcasses before processing. Although many foods contain naturally occurring phosphates, manufacturers add food-grade trisodium phosphate for use as a preservative to prolong the shelf life of products. Food producers use the chemical compound as an additive to prevent powders and liquids from forming clumps and to help stabilize mixtures before processing.

Is TSP a Paint Thinner?

Not in the common sense of the word. You might have seen people referring to TSP as a paint thinner. A paint thinner usually contains a large dose of acetone that can be really bad for you if you ingest it. However, even if you can use trisodium phosphate as a cleaner, it is not a cleaner in the traditional sense. So it does not contain acetone.

Trisodium Phosphate in the Food Industry

It is also quite common for manufacturers to use TSP in the food industry. There, it serves as a food additive. Food manufacturers use it to enhance flavor of products that they normally have to process or freeze, which include cheese, meat, canned food, and even children’s cereal. Even more so, this compound is officially approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). The European Union has also deemed it safe to use as a food additive. You can even find TSP in nutritional supplements taken by sports players to improve performance. In cereal, brands add TSP to reduce acidity, modify color, and help the cereal pass through the extruder unencumbered.

Is Trisodium Phosphate in Cereal Safe?

After noticing trisodium phosphate on the ingredient labels of many common cereal brands, many worried customers have expressed concern that TSP is poisoning them and their children. Is trisodium phosphate actually dangerous? As we’ve already mentioned, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls it generally safe. That is, if not consumed in generous amounts. According to the FDA, a person can consume up to 70 mg of TSP every day and not expose himself or herself to any health risks. However, if we can find tridosium phosphate in so many produce, the concern is that we can expose ourselves to a much larger quantity each day.

lucky charms - example of trisodium phosphate in cereals

Furthermore, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) advises people to avoid contact with the compound. That is especially true in its natural form, so as a white crystalline powder. According to the CDC, contact with TSP can lead to a burning sensation, abdominal pain, collapse, or even shock. When it takes the form of a dry powder, TSP can also cause corrosion of your skin, eyes, or respiratory system. It is no wonder then, that people are asking how safe it is for manufacturers to put it in cereal.

Other studies show that if you consume a lot of phosphate it can lead to the removal of necessary bone calcium, the calcification of soft tissue, and kidney damage as well. If you ingest phosphate chronically, you run the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis.

However, the issue seems to be that people believe the use of TSP in the food industry is the same with its use as a cleaning product and even paint thinner. However, its use and effects are different when it comes to the food industry, as opposed to the cleaning sector. The usual concern in industrial settings is that people might ingest an unnaturally large amount of TSP by accident. This is not the same as trisodium phosphate in cereal.

Should You Be Worried About Consuming Trisodium Phosphate?

Most people are worried about TSP because it will add to the quantity of phosphorus that they consume on a daily basis. It is true that, depending on how much of it you are used to consuming, it can lead to the things we have talked about above, such as the reduction of bone density, low calcium, or kidney disease. So the answer is that if you normally consume a large amount of phosphorus, you might limit that intake by staying away from trisodium phosphate in cereal, for instance.

Trisodium Phosphate Regulations

In the past, the primary active ingredient in most household cleaning products was trisodium phosphate. However, studies discovered that phosphates contributed to the growth of algae in lakes and rivers after disposal down drains and into water systems. Excessive algae growth reduces the available oxygen in the water that fish and other species depend on. In an effort to limit the damage to water sources and aquatic species, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia passed laws regulating the level of phosphates in household products. Regulations vary from state to state with some allowing no more than a trace of it in a product while others allow phosphates to constitute over 8 percent of the ingredients. However, the regulations only apply to household cleaners. Most states allow exemptions for cleaners used in industrial, agricultural, or institutional settings. Exemptions also apply to trisodium phosphate used as food additives. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the usages of chemicals added to food products.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is trisodium phosphate known by any other names? 
Other names for trisodium phosphate (TSP) include trisodium orthophosphate and sodium phosphate. However, sodium phosphate is a more generic designation and may also refer to monosodium dihydrogen phosphate and disodium monohydrogen phosphate.

Since many foods have naturally occurring phosphates, what is wrong with adding trisodium phosphates to foods? 
Organic phosphates occur in small amounts in foods and are more easily processed by the human body, allowing the kidneys to remove excess amounts. Manufacturers add inorganic phosphates to foods in larger amounts than what occurs naturally. The higher amounts force the kidneys to work harder trying to remove the unneeded phosphate. The body absorbs excess phosphates not removed by the kidneys potentially leading to harmful buildups that negatively affect a person’s health.

What is so harmful about trisodium phosphate? 
Excessive consumption of foods containing phosphates negatively affects bone density, putting people at a higher risk for fractures. It also contributes to increased calcium deposits throughout the body, including the lungs and heart. Non-food grade trisodium phosphate, used in cleaning agents and other products, poses several risks. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health warns exposure to the skin can cause chemical burns and blisters due to its highly corrosive nature. Inhalation of fumes or dust from trisodium phosphate, under normal conditions, may cause shortness of breath, a burning sensation or sore throat. When burned, it may produce toxic fumes. Ingestion of non-food grade trisodium phosphate may cause shock.

What are the long-term effects of exposure to trisodium phosphate? 
Studies indicate that excessive consumption of foods containing added phosphates places people at a higher risk of bone fractures and tooth damage. Exposure to trisodium phosphate fumes can lead to respiratory infections including pneumonia. It is unknown how frequent exposure to small amounts of it will affect the body. However, most material data sheets recommend using protective gear when handling it.

Summing Everything Up

Since people have noticed that the food industry uses trisodium phosphate in cereal, an entire debate has been taking shape regarding whether this is dangerous to our health or not. If you are looking for a definitive answer, it might be hard to come across one. However, the bottom line is that, as any inorganic compound, TSP can be dangerous if ingested in extremely large quantities. On the other hand, a small amount of tridosium phosphate in cereal wouldn’t normally cause any health issues.

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