Insights by Goldie
Sound Consumer | June 2002
by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist
TSP in Cheerios
(Editor's update: PCC stopped selling Cheerio's in 2003)
Q: "Why does PCC carry cereal that has wall-paper stripper in it (not EVEN as the last ingredient)? The product I am talking about is Cheerios™. Are you aware that Cheerios contain trisodium-phosphate? I went to several Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to learn more about TSP ... It is used as a wall-paper stripper, WAS ... an industrial floor scrub until EPA and OSHA deemed it too toxic for employees to breathe ... I called General Mills and they did confirm that TSP was in fact an ingredient ... however they made no statements as to why." — Marna Marteeny
A: Marna, I contacted General Mills. Here's an excerpt from their response:
"TSP is used as a buffer to adjust the acidic nature of the cereal dough. In home cleaning products TSP is used in large quantities. In our food products we use very small amounts. Theoretically, any food grade base could be used: sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, ammonium hydroxide, ammonium phosphate, etc. At General Mills we have found that TSP works best in our particular products, and has been approved as safe for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration."
"As soon as TSP dissolves in the gastric juices of the stomach it is no longer present as such, only as sodium ions and a phosphate ion. In fact, this disassociation takes place even earlier, during the making of the cereal as it performs its buffering job. So one consumes very little — if any — TSP. It's important to note that the body doesn't distinguish the source of simple ions, whether they came in as an inherent part of the food or as part of an added ingredient. These ions are consumed naturally in large amounts in foods and water and they're both necessary for life. The body already has 'pools' of each ion; TSP in cereal adds just a few more 'drops.'"
This isn't the first time we've heard consumers question the presence of TSP, although we've never been able to actually find anything that indicts its low-level presence as harmful — however shocking "eating TSP" may sound! The other possible "buffers" mentioned by General Mills would also raise questions with most natural foods consumers, no doubt, though they don't "ring bells" as TSP does, because we've all seen it in Spic 'n Span floor cleaners and wallpaper stripper, as Marna notes.
Cheerios got into PCC as a WIC (Women and Infants) program item, and it is PCC's number one best-selling cereal. PCC carries one other conventional cereal (Grape Nuts) and our organic choices far outnumber them.
To its credit, Cheerios is made of whole grains, so it has a good profile for protein, carbohydrates, minerals and fiber, and is very low in sugar. It generally gets high marks from consumer rating groups (such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest) when rating cereals. Personally, my daughter Mary buys organic Nature O's, not Cheerios, for my young granddaughters and they love them. But I usually have Cheerios when traveling, since they're served at hotel breakfast buffets and they're usually more nutritious than other choices. At home? I eat oatmeal and granola.
Given alternatives, it's not really worth getting our tail in a twist about a non-organic cereal when we have so many organic ones to choose from. There are enough serious consumer food issues — such as GMO's, seed patenting, and irradiation, not to mention the levels of processed food that tempt consumers — that TSP in Cheerios is easily dodged. I applaud you, however, for asking questions, doing the research that raises red flags, and for questioning the reply sent by General Mills.
Doug Collins of the Washington Toxic Coalition also looked into your questions and adds, "the strongest argument is that there are acute dangers to workers who are handling concentrated TSP. It is the hazard from this kind of exposure that is described by the MSDS she mentions.
"Goldie's response sounds very well reasoned," says Collins. For substances like vinegar and TSP, where harmful effects only occur from exposures to the concentrated material, it is all a matter of dilution. Like TSP, vinegar can be used as a household cleaner. Acetic acid (vinegar is about 5 percent acetic acid) is now being used as an herbicide, but vinegar is also an ingredient in salad dressing."
If you'd like more information, Collins suggests the Toxnet website: toxnet.nlm.nih.gov.