Children ‘exceed’ acceptable daily intake of phosphates, EFSA finds

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

©gettyimages / Helmut Feil
©gettyimages / Helmut Feil
A new opinion published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that some population groups – particularly infants, children and adolescents – have too many phosphates in their diets. The opinion calls for a maximum level of phosphates to be established for supplements, with the implication that maximum levels in food should also be reviewed.

EFSA’s Panel on Food Additives and Flavourings (FAF) has compiled exposure and toxicity data to re‐evaluate the safety of phosphates (E 338–341, E 343, E 450–452) as food additives.

Analytical data was used to estimate dietary exposure to phosphates, taking into account all dietary sources. The Panel determined an acceptable daily intake (ADI) for phosphates that protects human health, expressed as phosphorus of 40 mg/kg body weight.

An ADI of 40 mg per kg of body weight equates to consuming 2,800 mg of phosphorous for an adult weighing 70 kg. This is within the “safety level”​ exposure of 3,000 mg per day set by EFSA.

The Panel noted that in the estimated exposure scenario based on analytical data, exposure estimates exceeded the proposed ADI for infants, toddlers and other children at the mean level, and for infants, toddlers, children and adolescents at the 95th percentile. The Panel also noted that phosphates exposure by food supplements exceeds the proposed ADI,”​ EFSA revealed.

Maximum limits in food may be re-visited 

The Panel recommended that the European Commission considers setting a Maximum Permitted Level (MPL) for phosphates as additives in food suppliaments. It also suggested that the EC revise its current limits for toxic elements (Pb, Cd, As and Hg) in the EU specifications for phosphates. This, the Panel said, would ensure that food additives E 338–341, E 343 and E 450–452 will not be a “significant source”​ of exposure to those toxic elements in food.

A spokesperson for EFSA explained currently phosphates used for technical functions, such as anti-caking, are allowed in EU legislation quantum satis​ (as much as is technologically necessary) in food supplements. In contrast, in other food applications maximum permitted levels are already established. 

"The recommendation [to establish maximum levels] does not apply to any other categories,"​ the spokesperson told FoodNavigator. "However, the setting of an ADI by EFSA (for the first time) implicitly means that maximum levels in EU legislation for other categories may be reviewed to ensure consumers are below the ADI."

He added: "EFSA’s scientific advice informs the decisions of the risk managers (the Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States), who may review these maximum levels in light of the new ADI."

Phosphates loosen the structure of a protein, enabling it to bind more water. This means that they can be used as a texturiser to deliver a creamier or juicier mouthfeel. They are especially common in meat products, where they are used as preservatives. They can also be used as a component of melting salts in soft cheese, or to stop soft drinks from separating. 

Additionally, the Panel suggested the EC should revise the current limit for aluminium in the specifications for calcium phosphate (E 341). The specifications for calcium dihydrogen phosphate (E 341(i)), calcium hydrogen phosphate (E 341(ii)), tricalcium phosphate (E 341(iii)), dimagnesium phosphate (E 343(ii)) and calcium dihydrogen diphosphate (E 450(vii)) should include characterisation of particle size distribution using appropriate statistical descriptors as well as the percentage of particles in the nanoscale present in calcium dihydrogen phosphate.

Analytical methods to determine the level of phosphate additives in foods and beverages should also be considered.

Finally, the Panel said the EFSA Scientific Committee should review its current approach to setting health-based guidance for regulated substances which are also nutrients to develop a “coherent harmonised strategy​” for risk assessment.

The re-assessment follows EFSA’s evaluation on phosphates which was completed in 2013​. At that time, the food safety agency noted scientific reviews suggesting an association between a high phosphate intake and increased cardiovascular risk.

However, it concluded that “owing to the intrinsic limitations of the non-interventional design of the studies included, it is not possible to make causal inferences for serum phosphate levels and the observed adverse effects”.

It added: “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.”

‘Cut their use as food additives’

European consumer groups responded positively to EFSA’s revised opinion. “We welcome the publication of the EFSA opinion re-evaluating the safety of phosphates. It confirms that some population groups ingest too much phosphates through their diet – whether these occur naturally in foods such as fish or dairy products or are used as food additives in soft drinks, meat or bakery products,”​ Camille Perrin is Senior Food Policy Officer at BEUC, The European Consumer Organisation, said.

“The opinion concludes phosphate intake is especially of concern in young consumers. Some toddlers and children, as well as adolescents whose diet is particularly high in phosphates, can exceed the safe daily phosphate intake level newly established by EFSA.”

While phosphates occur naturally, particularly in high protein food, Perrin suggested the “easiest way”​ to ensure consumers’ exposure to phosphates remains within safe limits is to “cut their use as food additives”. 

The type of phosphate found in additives (inorganic phosphate) is more readily absorbed by the body than phosphate found naturally in food (organic phosphate). Around 90-100% of inorganic phosphate is absorbed compared to 50% of organic phosphate.

Foods that are often high in added phosphates include: 

  • Processed meats: ham, gammon, bacon, reformed chicken, sausages, salami
  • Processed fish products, such as fish fingers
  • Processed cheese
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Some bakery products
  • Instant sauces and puddings, cake mixes

“While phosphates are everywhere in our food, meat products – along with bread and rolls, processed cheeses and sugars and syrups – are among the food categories contributing the most to exposure to phosphates as food additives. The priority should be to cut phosphates in those foods as much as feasible.​”

The row over kebab meat

Perrin said she “wished​” that this opinion had been available at the end of 2017, when the European Parliament narrowly rejected an objection to proposals from the European Commission to allow phosphates to be used as additives in products such as donor kebabs.

At the time, the use of phosphates was not permitted in “frozen vertical meat spits”​ (doner kebabs). In the face of strong opposition from Green MEPs, the practice was legalised​, permitting phosphoric acid, phosphates and polyphosphates to be as food additives in these meat preparations.

“Had the Commission waited, as we were requesting, the case for authorising phosphates in kebab meat would have been even weaker. The availability of phosphate-free alternative ingredients for kebab manufacturers makes the use of these additives all the more unnecessary.”

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