What Happens When You Get Too Much Dietary Phosphorus?

Burger and fries

Fast foods contain high levels of dietary phosphorus.

Phosphorus is an essential mineral necessary for bone formation and repair as well as teeth formation.  It also serves to promote normal muscle and nerve function, regulate heartbeat, support growth and repair of cells and tissues, store and use energy from food, and maintain normal kidney function.

Half of our dietary phosphorus is naturally found in protein-rich foods.

Phosphorus is plentiful in the American diet and deficiency is uncommon.  The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for phosphorus depends on life stage.  Since high intakes of phosphorus can cause health risks, Tolerable Upper Levels have been determined to prevent overconsumption.  The three main sources of dietary phosphorus are food and beverages, food additives, and supplements.  About half of our dietary phosphorus is naturally found in protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, legumes, and nuts.  The other major contributor of dietary phosphorus is added by manufacturers to processed foods to modify texture, taste, and color.

The availability of dietary phosphorus, especially excess amounts in the form of food additives, may lead to harmful effects on bone, kidney, and heart health.  Also, kidney disease can cause excess phosphorus in the blood, especially as kidney function decreases.  Too much phosphorus in the blood (hyperphosphatemia) causes calcium to migrate from the bone and deposit into tissues.  Therefore, it is very important that people with chronic kidney disease consult with their health care provider for specific dietary recommendations.  In healthy people, mildly elevated phosphorus levels may increase risk for bone and heart disease.

Lowering excess phosphorus in the diet can be easily achieved.

Fortunately, lowering excess phosphorus in the diet can be easily achieved by reducing consumption of processed foods that contain added phosphorus.  Some examples of foods that may contain phosphorus-based additives include baking mixes, frozen waffles, bacon, processed cheese, deli meats and poultry, convenience dinner entrees, canned soups, and most restaurant and fast foods.  Additionally, cola beverages contain phosphoric acid, which is a form of phosphorus.

Since phosphorus is not required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label, it is difficult to determine the amount added to a food.  However, the ingredient listing on the food package can be very helpful in identifying foods that contain phosphorus-based additives.  Ingredients are listed from most abundant to least abundant, with the additives shown at the end of the list.

Below are some common phosphorus additives in processed foods.

  • aluminum phosphate
  • dicalcium phosphate
  • sodium phosphate
  • monocalcium phosphate
  • sodium polyphosphate
  • phosphoric acid
  • polyphosphate
  • sodium tripolyphosphate

Limiting foods with these additives can help lower your intake of phosphorus.  The key to lowering your intake of phosphorus is to prepare foods from fresh, unprocessed ingredients.

Click here to visit UF/IFAS Extension for more information about dietary phosphorus and your health.