Many are aware processed foods contain a variety of food additives. You may assume those additives have been tested for safety and approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but this is not the case.
Although food manufacturers submit new additives to the FDA for review, the process takes years. In 1958, a loophole was created as Congress didn't want the FDA to waste time reviewing staple ingredients, like salt and vinegar. They added a category of generally recognized as safe (GRAS), under which no FDA review is required.
Since then the number of additives has grown from 800 to more than 10,000, including countless chemicals that put Americans' health at risk. One such additive is phosphate. A recent animal study 1 published in the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation, analyzed the additive phosphate , finding it impacted exercise tolerance and impaired fatty acid metabolism.
Food Additive Could Make You Lazy
Inorganic phosphates are extensively used in processed foods as preservatives and flavor enhancers. Researchers wanted to determine if there was an association between an excess of phosphate intake and physical activity.
Using an animal model, researchers found a higher serum phosphate measurement was independently associated with reduced time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and an increased amount of sedentary time. They also found a detrimental effect on skeletal muscle fatty acid metabolism and exercise capacity, independent of weight or heart function.
These inorganic food additives are found in up to 70 percent of processed foods, including packaged meats, and are widely used in sodas. 2 In a separate part of the study, using human subjects, the researchers found a similar correlation between high levels of phosphates and reduced physical activity.
Data was gathered from over 1,600 healthy people whose blood measurements indicated high levels of serum phosphate. Activity was monitored over seven days. Dr. Myles Wolf, professor of medicine and chief of nephrology at Duke University School of Medicine, who was not part of the study, said the finding was: 3
"[A]n important addition to a growing body of work suggesting the deleterious effects of consuming an abundance of phosphate in the diet. I think the animal data are outstanding. It's really fascinating, and I think one can take those animal findings and now do some additional human research that would get more at the specifics the study's authors are hypothesizing.
There's relatively low awareness of dietary phosphate as a potential harmful food constituent in excessive amounts. [It adds to] a growing chorus that suggests more attention should be paid to dietary phosphate consumption and its supplementation by the food industry in the food supply."
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Phosphorus and Phosphates Are Two Different Things
Although phosphorus and phosphate are terms sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same. Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in your body, making up nearly 1 percent of your total bodyweight. 4 It's present in nearly every cell, including your bones and teeth.
Phosphorus plays a role in how your body metabolizes and uses carbohydrates and fats. In conjunction with B vitamins, it is also important in kidney function, muscle contractions and nerve signaling. 5 On the other hand, phosphorus-based food additives, also known as phosphates, are inorganic.
These chemicals are used to enhance the flavor and moisture in processed foods, including deli meat, cereal, baked goods, soda and cheese. Dr. Alex Chang, clinical investigator and nephrologist with the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, believes one-third of Americans eat twice as much phosphorus as is recommended (700 milligrams is the recommended daily allowance). 6
Phosphates are also found naturally in a wide range of whole foods, such as meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables. However, it is the inorganic form saturating many processed foods and drinks that is the problem.
In a healthy adult, inorganic phosphate may be metabolized, the amount in the body being regulated by the kidneys. This means those with kidney disease or malfunction may be at risk for higher and more dangerous levels.
Phosphates in More Foods Than Just Soda
Estimates suggest 25 percent of adults eat at least three times more phosphate than is recommended. In contrast to the 700 mg of phosphorus to which U.S. adults are urged to limit their intake, the limits in the U.K. are no more than 550 mg per day.
Currently, U.S. and U.K. laws do not require manufacturers to publish the amount of phosphate contained in processed foods, 7 making it more difficult for people to monitor their intake and stay within recommended levels.
In the U.S., phosphates were first approved for use in bacon and ham in 1971. Later, they were also added to poultry and other meats. According to one report, 45 percent of today's grocery store items contain different types of phosphates. 8 Since the FDA classifies it as a GRAS ingredient, it must be included on the list but the exact amount used is not required.
Cheese, baked products and processed salad dressings are among the food choices containing phosphate additives. The food industry is also using phosphate additives in products traditionally considered low phosphorus foods, including: 9
Sodas and other bottled beverages
Enhanced meat and chicken products
Bottled coffee beverages
Breakfast (cereal) bars
Flavored waters and iced teas
The Importance of Eating Organic
If you're purchasing processed foods, locating hidden sources of phosphates requires patience and a lot of label reading, as it may be listed under a wide variety of names, including the following: 10
Phosphates Dangerous for Those With Kidney Disease
Within the past 15 years, hyperphosphatemia has been identified as a strong predictor of mortality in those suffering from advanced chronic kidney disease . 11 More recently, high normal serum phosphate has been an independent predictor of cardiovascular events and mortality in the general population.
Although common, elevated serum phosphorus is a major, preventable factor associated with cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in patients undergoing dialysis. 12 Those with kidney disease have difficulty breaking down minerals. Eating too much phosphate can increase bone loss and could ultimately lead to life-threatening conditions.
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Dr. Geoffrey Block, associate clinical professor in medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, commented on the devastation to his patient's health, saying, 13 "I've seen how devastating phosphorus can be. I've seen many [kidney disease] patients with amputated limbs."
There is also accumulating evidence showing high intake of phosphates increases your risk of kidney disease. The National Kidney Foundation has encouraged the FDA to require food labels to contain the amount of phosphorus found in the food. The Environmental Working Group also joined with the Kidney Foundation to raise concerns and added it to its Dirty Dozen guide to food additives. 14
Processed Foods Affect Your Motivation
In addition to negatively impacting exercise capacity and fatty acid metabolism, a processed food diet has an impact on your cognitive ability. In a study 15 at the University of California Los Angeles psychology department, 32 female rats were placed on one of two diets for six months.
The first group ate a diet of relatively unprocessed foods while the second ate highly processed, low quality foods with substantially more sugar. After three months the researchers observed a difference in the amount of weight the rats had gained. As expected, those on the junk food diet had become noticeably heavier. 16
As part of the study, the rats were required to press a lever in order to receive food or water. The rats on the diet higher in sugar had impaired performance and took substantially longer breaks than the lean rats. In one 30-minute session, the overweight rats took breaks nearly twice as long as those taken by the lean rats.
After six months, the diets were switched for nine days. In neither case did the switch affect weight or improve cognitive response. The researchers believe these findings suggest a pattern of consuming junk food, and not just the occasional binge, is responsible for obesity and cognitive impairments.
The rats on the junk food diet also grew a large number of tumors by the end of the six months as compared to those on the nutritious diet who grew fewer and smaller tumors that were not as widespread.
The results support those from a previous study 17 in which researchers found restrictions in cognitive ability after just one week in a group of lab rats eating a junk food diet. The researchers found signs of inflammation in the brain's hippocampal area, suggesting the inflammatory response in those suffering obesity may not be limited to fat tissue and may explain deterioration experienced in cognition. 18
Change Your Diet to Change Your Health Status
Eating the right foods can boost your mood and cognitive performance. According to the World Health Organization, depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, 19 affecting an estimated 322 million people globally, including more than 16 million Americans, 6 million of whom are seniors. 20
Statistics reveal we're not being particularly effective when it comes to prevention and treatment. Worldwide, rates of depression increased by 18 percent between 2005 and 2015. 21
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association 22 reports if you eat the right foods in the right amounts, your risk of dying from heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes — among the most common killers in the U.S. — could be cut nearly in half.
This data strongly suggests that by changing your diet you can substantially improve your health. While there's no "silver bullet" to eliminate your risk of developing disease, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist, epidemiologist and dean of the Friedman School at Tufts University, believes the way the food system is set up needs to change. 23
Mozaffarian's advice for people who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of changing their eating habits is to choose one area to improve and nail it down before moving on to another. For example, you might start by eliminating foods containing high fructose corn syrup or soda, which undoubtedly would bring about a huge health improvement.
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It is helpful to understand exactly where you're starting, so consider keeping a food diary for several days, writing down exactly what you eat and drink each day. Using an online tool also helps keep track of your macro and micronutrients, such as the one at Cronometer/Mercola . 24
Once you know where you're starting, it's easier to determine the food items you'll want to eliminate and those you'll want to include. For help developing a plan that works for your lifestyle, use " My Updated Nutrition Plan — Your Guide to Optimal Health ."