When it comes to helping my patients overcome bad lifestyle habits and adopt healthier ones, I’ve found that one particularly motivating mantra elicits the greatest success and the least amount of resistance: everything in moderation. ‘Yes, of course it’s difficult for you to begin exercising every day…why don’t you start with just two or three times a week?…everything in moderation…certainly, it is quite a challenge to give up alcohol and sugar…feel free to allow yourself a glass of wine and a piece of dessert this evening at your holiday party…everything in moderation!…’
But why would you moderate something that you’re not even aware is harming you? And – perhaps even more disturbing – once you do know of the harm, how do you moderate it when you don’t even know it’s there?
Herein lies the problem when it comes to our consumption of an extremely prevalent (and extremely profitable) food additive – phosphorus based additives. And, while phosphate additives abound in over 50 percent of processed food products and 90 percent of meat and poultry products, they’re rarely ever labeled on any of them. The medical community has known for decades that these additives could be detrimental to people with renal disease, but recent evidence has now linked phosphates to health problems in the general, healthy population as well. Medical studies are showing that common phosphate food additives could be responsible for significant increases in our risks for life-threatening cardiovascular problems, heart disease, kidney failure, paralysis, and early death from all causes.
However, despite these terrifying risks, food manufacturers are not legally mandated to label phosphate additives on their products in the United States. This prevents doctors, dieticians, and concerned citizens from safely tracking how much people are consuming on a daily basis, and also from making health-wise alternative product choices.
So how do we fight against an enemy that keeps its face unseen? I’d like to discuss some of the life-threatening health dangers that phosphate food additives could be lurking behind, and how to wisely steer away from over-consuming these substances in your daily life.
Phosphorus is one of the most abundant and important minerals in our body. It works in unison with calcium to ensure strong bones and teeth, and is also vital to the growth, maintenance and repair of our DNA, all of our cells and all of our tissues. Phosphorous operates with other vitamins and minerals to help our bodies metabolize carbohydrates and fats, use and store energy, contract our muscles, regulate our heartbeat, signal nerves, and control key kidney functions. Therefore, we all need some phosphorus in our diets; the Institute of Medicine recommends that most healthy adults get 700 mg of dietary phosphorus daily.
However, aside from people suffering from starvation, alcoholism, diabetes, Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, most of us never have to worry about getting this amount of phosphorus from our food each day. Phosphorus is a mineral that is naturally found in many different kinds of food, and is present in ample amounts. In fact, for the majority of us, having too much phosphorus in the body is much more common – the average American consumes double the recommended daily amount – and studies are beginning to show that this is far more worrisome. This is because phosphorus must function in a delicate balance with other vitamins and minerals in the body to perform properly. Offsetting this balance by consuming too much of it can set a dangerous stage for arterial stiffening, vascular damage, kidney malfunction, heart disease, and all-cause early mortality.
Perhaps it seems like a bit of a cruel joke at first, having to face a potentially lethal killer lurking in the majority of natural animal and plant-based foods surrounding us – but luckily, natural sources of organic phosphorus aren’t the ones we have to worry about. While meat, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy products are naturally high in organic phosphorus, our bodies are only able to absorb about 40 to 60 percent of it. Plant-based sources of organic phosphorus, such as legumes, beans, nuts and whole grains, come in the form of phytates, which our bodies absorb even less efficiently, mostly under 50 percent.
The real problem arises from artificial phosphate additives, which are of an inorganic form and therefore absorb at a rate of almost 100 percent into our bodies. In North America, these additives are liberally used in almost all processed meat and poultry products, as well as thousands of processed foods, fast foods and junk foods, acting as emulsifiers, stabilizers, acidulants, leavening agents, and color and flavor enhancers.
While the U.S. does not require food manufacturers to label their use of phosphate additives on nutrition facts labels, manufacturers make use of them regularly to enhance the appearance, quality, shelf life and profitability of their products.
For example, phosphate additives are used in processed cheeses and cheese spreads as emulsifiers and protein stabilizers. They are used in powdered drink mixes, carbonated beverages and colas, as acidulants that maintain their tart taste and familiar color. They can be found in dry cereals as color modifiers, in instant hot cereals to decrease cooking time, and in prepared frozen foods like French fries and hash browns, to prevent excessive darkening.
Perhaps the most prevalent use of phosphate additives is in meat and poultry. Since 1982, the U.S. has been allowing the meat and poultry industry to inject 11 different kinds of phosphate salts into their products, and has not required that these additives appear on package labels. The result is that, today, almost 90 percent of processed poultry and meat products contain one or more phosphate additives in them. The meat industry uses these additives to boost color, retain moisture, and to help prevent early rancidity that would otherwise be caused by metals found in the meat.
Phosphate injections in meat and poultry are also heavily relied upon to decrease “purge.” Purge is a liquid made up of water, fat, blood, and other substances added during processing, that naturally seeps out of the meat as it ages. For the food industry, purge is a dreaded side-effect that bites into the bottom line. This is because meat and poultry are products that are sold by the pound, turning phosphate additives that reduce purge and product shrinkage into invaluable substances that keep meat prices – and overall industry profit margins – higher.
However, by acting to boost the phosphorus content of meat and poultry by over 70 percent, what else are these food additives actually costing us?
It’s long been known that high concentrations of phosphorus in the blood act as a strong predictor of premature death in people with chronic kidney disease. Controlling the amount of dietary phosphorus that a dialysis patient consumes is an important step in controlling the disease.
However, it’s now beginning to seem that phosphate additives in foods may be harming the health of people with normal kidney functions as well. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found a high phosphorus concentration in the blood to be associated with vascular calcification (excessive deposits of calcium in the vessels, causing them to stiffen and not function properly) in young, healthy men. Vascular calcification is linked to atherosclerosis, heart problems, cardiovascular disease, stroke and brain disorders. Aside from soft tissue calcification, excessive phosphate intake has also been linked to accelerated aging, muscle and skin atrophy, and has also been shown to disrupt hormonal regulation and mineral metabolism, causing bone loss and osteoporosis. Moreover, this past week’s edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high phosphorus intake was linked to increased risk of mortality from all causes.
Another strange and disturbing consequence of phosphate food additives goes back to the meat industry’s rampant use of them, and the effect this may have had on the number and severity of food poisoning cases across the globe. Campylobacter bacteria are a major cause of food-borne infection around the world, and ingestion of this bacteria can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, and further complications such as chronic inflammation, paralysis, and infection of the brain and spinal cord. Poultry products are common carriers of this harmful pathogen, and Campylobacter bacteria can often be found in varying numbers in the purge that seeps into poultry packaging. However, while phosphate additives are used to reduce amounts of poultry purge, a 2010 research study found that the purge of phosphate-injected processed poultry carcasses contained one million times more Campylobacter bacteria than poultry that was phosphate-free. Considering the fact that the infectious dose of Campylobacter bacteria is as little as 500 organisms, this kind of increase could be significantly responsible for why Campylobacter bacterial infections are the most common food-borne illness experienced in the developed world.
This brings us back to our original dilemma: how do you moderate something in your diet when you don’t know it’s there? Well, while phosphate additive labeling isn’t regulated or mandated on nutrition fact labels, they will sometimes appear on package ingredient lists. Become a habitual ingredients list scanner. For the most part, avoid ingredients that contain “phos-” somewhere in the name, such as dicalcium phosphate, disodium phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, potassium tripolyphosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, trisodium triphosphate, etc. Unfortunately, at other times, phosphate additives are labeled more inconspicuously, as “broth”, “flavoring”, “mineral salts”, “emulsifier”, etc., or not even labeled at all.
However, at the same time, there are certain processed foods that you can be relatively certain contain phosphate additives. These include processed and deli meats and poultry, soft drinks (especially colas), processed cheeses and soft cheese spreads, ice creams, frozen yogurt, yogurts and skim milk powder, store-bought baked goods, prepared frozen foods and meals like frozen pizza, french fries, and fish sticks, condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise, chocolate and chocolate drinks. Fast foods and convenience foods tend to be high in phosphate additives, among other things that are generally bad for your health. So avoid processed and prepared foods as much as possible, and build your diet around whole, natural vegetables, fruits, whole grains and other plant foods. Buy meat, poultry and fish fresh, raw and without additives, and cook them yourself with home-made flavorings like seasoning mixes and marinades that you’ve made from scratch. Build a collection of simple and easy recipes that involve raw, natural ingredients and you’ll see this isn’t as difficult or time consuming as it may seem at first.
If you are experiencing kidney problems or are at risk for kidney disease or renal failure, than you may need to restrict your dietary phosphorus, protein and sodium intake even further, as well as take particular supplements and medications. Always speak to your doctor first before employing such measures for lowering phosphorus concentrations in your blood.
While getting harmful food additives legally banned from use is a painfully slow process (as we learned a couple of weeks back with the FDA’s recommendation to ban partially hydrogenated oils), perhaps the best way to get the ball rolling is by making sure that the medical community and general public are aware of the problem in the first place. Sadly, a recent survey revealed that, not only are most people unaware of the risks associated with high dietary intake of phosphates, but two thirds of medical students and future medical professionals were also unaware, and had no idea which foods and beverages contained phosphate additives and could pose a danger to public health. As we’ve just seen with the recent turn-around on trans fats, it wasn’t the FDA that initiated the reduction of these harmful fats from this nation’s food supply; it took the action of medical professionals, health advocacy groups and general consumers to make a stand against purchasing high trans fat products, finally coaxing the food industry to follow in chase of consumer demand.
So make your stand by taking the steps I’ve recommended above, and be sure to share and email this article on to family, friends, and everyone whose health you care about.
Yours in Good Health,
Dr. Victor Marchione