Phosphates: Worse Than Fat or Sodium?

Phosphates are in so many damn products—and they're often in cheaper processed foods. But with every convenience comes a cost.

Image courtesy of Corbis.

With every convenience comes a cost. That seems to be the message of a recently published study by a team of researchers examining how phosphates affect our health.

So what are phosphates, exactly? They're chemical compounds frequently added to processed foods like sodas, lunch meats, cheeses, cakes, and cookies to improve shelf life, consistency, texture, moisture, and color (among other things). But researchers found that these compounds also can increase risk of developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Specifically, a Vienna-based research team set out to look for connections between phosphate consumption, kidney disease, hypertension, and cardiovascular problems. What they found is that high consumption of phosphates leads to excess production of a powerful hormone produced in bone cells called fibroblast growth factor 23 (a.k.a. the no-less-catchy FGF23).

Tests on mice showed elevated FGF23 spurs a slew of negative health effects, ranging from high levels of sodium in the blood (resulting in high blood pressure and heart disease) to increased calcium absorption by the kidneys (leading to dangerous vascular calcification). These results were published in the current edition of the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.

But cutting down on phosphates is no easy task for the average American, because by now they're in so many damn products. A study published in July 2013 in the Journal of Renal Nutrition reported that after examining the labels of nearly 3,000 best-selling grocery items in northeast Ohio, 44 percent were found to contain added phosphates. Broken down further, added phosphates were found in 72 percent of prepared frozen foods, 70 percent of dry-food mixes, 65 percent of packaged meats, 57 percent of bread and baked goods, 54 percent of soups, and 51 percent of yogurts. The same study found that foods containing phosphates are cheaper than additive-free alternatives—which raises all kinds of sociopolitical red flags.

Critics have called for phosphates to be listed on food labels, something that is not required now and is not included in the newly proposed FDA food-labeling requirements announced in March. Of course there is one way to ensure that your food remains added-phosphate-free: Stick to unprocessed, real, whole foods—even if they cost a bit more.

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