Trisodium phosphate cleaner (TSP) in food? Say it isn’t so!! A few months ago we were having dishwasher problems–it just wasn’t cleaning particularly well. A friend suggested trying running Trisodium Phosphate through it a couple of times. She warned me that Trisodium Phosphate was “really strong” and that I should make sure there was plenty of ventilation and to not let it touch my skin. Oooookay. Did not sound particularly safe!! So when I read a Facebook post that there is Trisodium Phosphate in many processed foods, I thought “well, that can’t be right!” But yep, it turned out to be true.
What is Trisodium Phosphate?
Trisodium Phosphate is the inorganic compound Na3PO4. It is primarily used as an industrial cleaning agent for heavy-duty degreasing and mildew removal. When combined with surfactants, it has proven to be an extremely effective cleaning agent; it is also very low-cost, making it appealing to manufacturers. TSP is also extremely alkaline (pH of 12).
When purchased in a hardware store or online for use in cleaning, the first thing you may notice is the warning label. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency banned its use in many cleaning products as it was found to be dangerous to the aquatic life. However, it is still frequently used industrially as a cleaning agent.
According to the industry-created Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), TSP can cause eye irritation, skin irritation, nausea, dizziness, abdominal burning and diarrhea if ingested in high quantities. But in the doses used in food, the EPA has recognized TSP as a GRAS substance (this stands for Generally Recognized as Safe) for food.
So What is the Role of TSP in Processed Food?
Manufacturers use TSP in processed foods for two primary reasons: one, as a buffering agent to allow for the absorption of a high amount of acid without affecting the overall pH of the food product and two, as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers change FAT into PHOSPHOLIPIDS which are less hydrophobic. This means the processed food will be less likely to repel liquids. My understanding is this helps the cereal absorb milk as well as saliva better when you’re chewing it. Without it, cereal would have a very different “mouth feel”.
Interestingly, TSP also “bulks up” processed food, which means that the product actually weighs more with the TSP in it. This allows the company to sell less actual “food” at the same cost and make more money. According to food scientists, the presence of TSP allows the company to claim a lower fat content for the food as well. Because the TSP increases the water content of the food, that water is now actually part of the food itself. Since water has zero fat, the overall fat content of the food product is strategically lowered. Interesting!
TSP is also used to wash the carcasses of chickens after butchering. The TSP, while washing, strips off a lot of the chicken fat, and with it a lot of the bacteria that causes food poisoning. (One does, of course, wonder why there is so much bacteria on the carcass to begin with: overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions for the animals, unclean equipment, but that’s for another post).
Remember, TSP is a Phosphate…and Excessive Phosphate Can Be Dangerous
Scientists have been investigating the problem of excessive phosphates in the diet for a long time now. The studies as conducted on both mice and humans reveal that excessive dietary phosphate contributes to:
- accelerate the aging process by inflicting tissue damage
- higher levels of calcification in the heart
- lowered fertility in both males and females
- the growth of lung tumors
- lower bone density leading to osteoporosis
There are many foods that naturally contain very high levels of organic phosphate. These include beef, bran, chicken, seafood and nuts. However, it’s the INORGANIC form of phophates (including TSP) in our food that scientists are particularly concerned about. These inorganic phosphates can be found as additives in a wide variety of processed foods, including soda, boxed cereal, chicken nuggets and most processed meat. Most people consume in excess of 1400 mg of phosphorus a day (US RDA recommends limiting phosphorus intake to a maximum of 700 mg/day) (link)
According to UC Berkeley scientists: “It’s possible that inorganic phosphorus (the kind found in additives and thus in processed foods and some beverages) is a greater health risk because it is more easily absorbed, as is the organic phosphorus in meat, compared to that in plant foods (such as beans).” (link)
Which Processed Food Contain TSP?
You must read the ingredients to be 100% sure. According to my research, however, the following products contain TSP:
Fiber One (Honey Clusters), Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Wheaties, Total, Cheerios Banana Nut and Protein versions, Cookie Crisp, Golden Grahams, Lucky Charms (most versions), Raisin Nut Bran, Lucky Charms, Trader Joe’s breakfast cereals and most processed meats, some toothpastes including most Crest brands and many mouthwash products.
Now if you’re halfway healthy, you probably don’t eat a lot of these foods anyway. Most are chock full of ingredients that are probably a lot worse for you than TSP. But Cheerios? Trader Joe’s? I actually like the occasional bowl of Cheerios!! There is a bit of confusion going around about whether Health Valley cereals contain TSP. Some bloggers have said they do. But according to my research, I have not seen TSP on the ingredients labels of any Health Valley cereals. I have a call in to the company to find out their response.
So What’s my Final Verdict on Trisodium Phosphates?
Well…Grandma sure didn’t cook with it. In other words, it’s not a natural pure ingredient. In general, I try to eat foods that are as unprocessed as I can find, which means I avoid (to the best of my ability) ingredients I wouldn’t find in my own cupboard. So TSP goes on that list, for sure.
Is it the worst ingredient found in processed foods? Probably not. But if you eat a fair amount of processed foods, you should think about the impact of additives such as TSP and other inorganic phosphates on your health. I certainly wouldn’t want to be ingesting this stuff daily, or weekly, or even monthly. We are exposed to so many toxins that we can NOT control, it seems only smart to do our best to avoid ingesting and contacting toxins that we CAN avoid, and TSP is one of them.
There are many other safer breakfast cereals on the market that I would recommend, but I will save those for another post. Suffice to say, do your very best to avoid ingesting TSP and any other inorganic phosphates. The average consumer is not doing a great job at limiting his/her exposure (given that the average consumer ingests over DOUBLE the maximum recommended amount) and the negative health effects are many.