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What to Know About Disodium Phosphate

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Disodium phosphate is a chemical added to foods, cosmetics, and other products. It’s useful as a preservative and a flavor enhancer, among other things.

This artificial type of salt is made from the elements sodium and phosphorus. Chemists create it in a lab. They break down naturally-occurring phosphate rock and combine it with sulfuric acid and other substances.

Some foods like legumes and wheat products naturally have similar phosphates. Processed foods usually have much higher levels of disodium phosphate as an additive.

Disodium phosphate falls into the larger category of sodium phosphates that are used in consumer products. It looks like a white, grainy powder.

Disodium Phosphate in Food

It’s very common in processed and packaged foods. Some of the purposes it serves in the manufacturing process are:

Emulsifier. This is a chemical that helps to bind fats and water together. Fats don’t mix with many other liquids without help. (Think about oil and vinegar.) Emulsifiers have a chemical structure that helps them mix.

Disodium phosphate is a helpful emulsifier for dairy products and other foods. Cheese, whipped cream, milk, and other dairy products have unique textures and consistencies because of disodium phosphate.

Preservative. Both sodium and phosphorus can help extend foods’ shelf life. Some of the first instances of preserving and curing food used salt.

Disodium phosphate is also helpful in canning food since it prevents metal from rusting.

Flavor enhancer. Processed foods often have additives that strengthen their flavor and make them more savory. Many foods have sodium-containing additives to enhance their flavor.

pH control. A food’s pH level (or level of acidity) can affect its nutritional value, color, and other characteristics. Canning or using jars can alter foods’ pH levels. Disodium phosphate can help control a food’s pH level throughout the production process.

Some common foods that have disodium phosphate are:

  • Whipped cream
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Seafood
  • Meat
  • Pasta
  • Soda
  • Gelatin powder

Disodium Phosphate in Cosmetics

Disodium phosphate is used in some makeups, skin creams, and shampoos. It can help with things like:

pH control. Your skin has a slightly acidic pH level. If the cosmetics you use are too basic or too acidic, they can irritate your skin. They might cause excessive dryness or oiliness. Disodium phosphate can help keep cosmetics’ pH closer to your skin’s natural level.

Prevents packaging from rust. Disodium phosphate can prevent the metal in packaging from rusting. This is helpful for food and cosmetic products.

Disodium phosphate is common in many cosmetics:

  • Mouthwash
  • Foundation
  • Hair dye and bleach
  • Skincare creams
  • Sunscreen

Other products and processes containing disodium phosphate include:

  • Laxatives
  • Fireproofing material
  • Water treatment
  • Various medications

Is Disodium Phosphate Safe?

In most products, disodium phosphate is safe. It doesn’t build up over time to toxic levels in your body. Disodium phosphate levels are usually low in any product that has it. It also helps protect against contamination and the decay of food and cosmetics.

Health Risks of Disodium Phosphate

You can talk to your doctor if you have one of these ongoing health conditions and you’re concerned you’re getting too much disodium phosphate. They can tell you if you need to make any changes.

Kidney disease. Your kidneys filter out unnecessary chemicals and toxins from your body. These chemicals include phosphorus.

Health problems like kidney disease can affect how well they get rid of phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in your body can lead to bone weakening. It can also cause calcium deposits that can contribute to heart disease, joint pain, vein problems, and other issues.

Heart disease. Disodium phosphate can link to heart disease in some cases. People with kidney disease tend to be at higher risk. Disodium phosphate doesn’t cause heart disease. It’s usually at its highest levels in processed foods with higher calories. These foods can lead to obesity and related heart problems.

Edema. Heart disease, cirrhosis, and other medical conditions can cause edema. This is excessive swelling in different parts of your body. Disodium phosphate and similar chemicals can worsen edema.

Digestive problems. Too much disodium phosphate, especially in laxatives, can irritate your bowels. This can cause stomach discomfort, constipation, diarrhea, head pain, and other issues.

Most products with disodium phosphate don’t label the amount. Try not to get more than 3 grams of the chemical per day if you’re taking medication that contains it.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Current Problems in Dermatology: “The Relation of pH and Skin Cleansing.”

Dairy Science & Technology: “Reducing the level of added disodium phosphate alters the chemical and physical properties of processed cheese."

Deutsches Ärzteblatt International: “Phosphate Additives in Food a Health Risk.”

Electrochimica Acta: “Phosphate ions as corrosion inhibitors for reinforcement steel in chloride-rich environments.”

EWG: “Disodium Phosphate.”

FDA: "Code of Federal Regulations Title 21," “Food Additive Status List,” “Sodium Phosphate, Dibasic.”

Food & Nutrition: "Food Additives: Emulsifiers."

MedlinePlus: “Phosphate Salts.”

NATIONAL KIDNEY FOUNDATION: “If you need to limit phosphorus,” “Phosphorus and Your Diet."

OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: “FOOD TECHNOLOGY FACT SHEET.”

PubChem: "Sodium phosphate P 32."

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE: "MAKING DISODIUM PHOSPHATE."

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