The European Commission asked EFSA to reassess the safety of phosphates as food additives in April, after researchers suggested excessive phosphate consumption could be damaging to health.
In its assessment of the review, EFSA said that the data was insufficient to conclude that phosphate additives caused the observed health problems.
“In addition, from the evidence reviewed it is not clear whether the increased cardiovascular risk observed in these observational studies is attributable to differences in the dietary intake of phosphorus in general or in the form of phosphate additives and serum phosphate levels,” it said.
Phosphates for use as food additives – including phosphoric acid and phosphates (E 338–341; E 343) and polyphosphates (E 450–452) – are due for EFSA re-evaluation by the end of 2018.
It said: “In the context of this re-evaluation all relevant toxicological information will be collated and evaluated. A dedicated call for data aimed at gathering information on usage levels of phosphates in food will be launched in preparation for the re-evaluation.”
The researchers behind the review that prompted EFSA’s investigation also called for a ‘traffic light’ labelling system for phosphate additives, considering that its presence in food is not quantified on labels, but simply indicated by an E number.
They said there is a known correlation between phosphate consumption and organ calcification in renal patients, and a correlation between high blood phosphate levels and cardiovascular disease in healthy people. EFSA’s evaluation centres on the potential heart risk posed by phosphates for the general population.
Natural phosphate esters are found mainly in protein-rich foods and are broken down slowly in the gut before they are reabsorbed into the body. However, phosphate additives are present at high levels in many processed foods, including meat products, soft cheeses, flavoured soft drinks, baked goods and canned or frozen vegetables, and these may be absorbed more rapidly.
Intakes of phosphate-containing food additives are estimated to have doubled in the past 20 years, from just under 500 mg a day to 1000 mg a day.