Vegan Guide to Phosphorus


So you know, this article covers phosphorus in depth, but doesn’t go over supplementation too heavily.

Is Phosphorus Vegan?

Yes, phosphorus is vegan. It’s widely distributed in foods including many commonly consumed plants. In fact, phytate, the compound present in many plant foods, is the principal storage form of phosphorus in numerous vegan diet staples—cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds.1

Are Phosphorous Supplements Vegan?

Phosphorus supplements are vegan. While phosphorus was initially acquired from bone ash, world production of the mineral switched sometime in the 1840s to other methods of manufacturing—e.g. mining from guano (bat excrement) and phosphate rock.2-6

A Note on Phosphorus Supplementation

Phosphorus supplementation is rarely needed and may have negative health effects. For this reason, common OTC vitamin/mineral supplements generally contain little (if any) of the mineral.

Phosphate is sometimes prescribed as a result of a clinical diagnosis of deficiency, but the physician’s diagnosis must be documented.11 For example, in the case of hypophosphatemic rickets (children) or hypophosphatemic osteomalacia (adults).51

Phosphate supplements typically come with other minerals. The Physicians’ Desk Reference includes a few phosphate salts, combined with other nutrients, especially calcium.12 Two common phosphorus-containing supplements are Neutra-Phos K and K-Phos, both of which provide potassium.

While OTC supplements are available, self-supplementation by consumers is discouraged as it may place them at risk for chronic PTH elevation and bone loss.11

Vegan Foods High in Phosphorus

Great vegan food sources of phosphorus include:7

  • Peanuts. For example, 1 oz. of peanuts contains 101 mg or 10% DV. Peanut butter provides 57 mg / Tbsp. or 5.7% DV.
  • Tree nuts. For example, pecans and walnuts provide 79 mg (7.9% DV) and 98 mg (9.8% DV), respectively.
  • Legumes. 1 cup of kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans contains  233 mg (2.3% DV), 241 mg (2.4% DV), and 251 mg (2.5% DV), respectively.
  • Grains.  For example, 1 slice of whole-wheat bread contains around 57 mg (5.7% DV).
  • Cereals. 1 cup of raisin bran cereal contains 200 mg or  20% DV.

Not exactly healthy, but soft drinks are an honorable mention. Soda contains phosphoric acid and, when consumed regularly, can contribute to phosphorus intake. One 12-oz soft drink contains around 25 to 40 mg of phosphorus.7

Phosphorus in Plant Foods

A couple of disadvantages come with obtaining this mineral solely from plant foods: lower density of food sources and reduced bioavailability. However, due to the low prevalence of phosphorus deficiency, this is not thought of as a true disadvantage of plant-based diets.

For educational purposes, we’ll cover this topic anyway. As you can see, the above sources aren’t particularly dense. Again, phosphorus is widely distributed in foods including the plant kingdom. However, the best food sources of the mineral are of animal origin—specifically, protein-rich foods like poultry, meat, fish, eggs, and milk/milk products.

One egg provides around 100 mg of phosphorus. Milk fat exists in membrane-bound droplets. The membranes, of course, are packed with phospholipids and, for this reason, dairy products provide about 200 to 350 mg of the mineral per serving. Meats, poultry, and fish all contain about 150 to 250 mg/3-oz serving.

As for bioavailability, dietary phosphorus occurs as either organic or inorganic phosphate. As you might have guessed, the relative amounts of the different forms vary between animal and plant foods.

Phosphorus present in meat occurs within the cells in the form of organic phosphates, making it easily hydrolyzed and absorbed. Phosphorus in plants, however, occurs mostly in the form of phytate—a compound present in high amounts in nuts, seeds, and legumes.8

More than 80% of the phosphorus occurring in grains like wheat, corn, and rice, are found as phytic acid. Phytic acid is also found in legumes, beans, and nuts.

We mammals lack the enzyme phytase that’s needed to degrade this compound, thus the bioavailability of phosphorus from plant foods is low (about 50%), rendering the foods a relatively poor source of the mineral despite their high phosphorus content.

This is not necessarily a bad thing given the rarity of phosphorus deficiency and the prevalence of high phosphorus to calcium ratios which is thought to be bad for bone health. Phosphorus overload is also a problem for patients with CKD. It’s thought that the widespread use of food additives (many containing high levels of inorganic phosphate) may be an emerging issue for this population.9,10

Phosphorus Fertilizers: Are They Vegan-Friendly?

Phosphate and other single-nutrient fertilizers are considered vegan. The phosphate used in fertilizers is usually obtained via extraction from minerals containing the PO43- anion. Organic fertilizers are not vegan as they’re derived from formerly living matter including animals.13

Eco vegans may take issue with the environmental impact of chemical fertilizers. They’ve been excessively used over the past few decades in order to satisfy the nutritional needs of livestock coupled with the reduced natural fertility of US soil.14

This excessive reliance on chemical fertilizers (phosphate, but also nitrogen and potassium) has had some negative impacts on the environment:

  • They’re produced from nonrenewable resources.15
  • Increased air pollution.16
  • Groundwater contamination.17 When nitrogen accumulates in water, it’s called “alga blooms” in lakes and “red tides” in estuaries.18 This leads to soil pollution, which causes damage to plants and animals.19
  • Reduction in biodiversity.20 The mining of phosphate rock for feed additives, etc. has had a profoundly negative impact on the environment’s biodiversity.21 Tangentially, the production of soy-based veggie protein requires seven times less phosphate rock than what’s required for meat protein production.22

The Vegan Diet and Phosphorus Deficiency

Is Phosphorus Deficiency a Problem for Vegans?

Vegans are not characteristically phosphorus deficient. Phosphorus deficiency is rare in most populations and tends to be limited to people with renal disease and on high amounts of antacids, and people who are malnourished.23

In Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention, Daiva Gorczyca states, “Indeed, phosphorus is one of the most ubiquitous nutrients in foods, so the supply of phosphorus from the vegetarian or nonvegetarian diets complies with the recommendations, and deficiency is not observed.”24

The Adventist Health Study 2 (AHS-2) found diet groups to have the following phosphorus intakes. For reference, the current RDA for phosphorus is 700 mg for both men and women 19 years of age and older.25,26

  • Non-vegetarians 1,359 mg
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – 1,348 mg
  • Semi-vegetarians – 1,360 mg
  • Pesco-vegetarians -1,366 mg
  • Vegan – 1,370 mg

How Can Vegans Avoid Phosphorus Deficiency?

Phosphorus absorption is influenced by a number of dietary factors. When considering your own phosphorus intake, you may want to keep the following in mind.

Inhibitors

A few different substances can inhibit phosphorus absorption:

  • Phytic acid. Having six phosphate groups, phytic acid is the main form of phosphate in plant foods like legumes and grains. Humans don’t produce phytase, the enzyme needed to free phosphate from phytic acid. Thus, the bioavailability of the mineral from phytic acid is poor. Certain yeasts present in bread have the needed enzyme and do in fact free some phosphorus for absorption. But, when foods containing phytic acid are consumed along with foods rich in Zn2+ or Ca2+, phytic acid tends to form complexes with these cations preventing absorption of the bound nutrients.
  • Other minerals. Calcium, magnesium, and aluminum, also impair absorption of phosphorus. In fact, these minerals have long been common components of antacids administered to bind dietary phosphate in folks with hyperphosphatemia (high blood levels of phosphorus) caused by kidney disease. The combination of phosphorus plus magnesium is thought to form the complex, Mg3(PO4)2, which renders both nutrients unavailable for absorption. Aluminum hydroxide has been found to reduce absorption phosphorus from 70% to 35%.
Enhancers

Calcitriol is the primary enhancer of phosphorus absorption, stimulating carrier-mediated transport of the mineral in the GI mucosa of the duodenum and jejunum.

The presence of calcitriol has been shown to up-regulate the number of cotransporters in the brush border membrane, though it’s not essential for this up-regulation.27

Vegans, Phosphorus, and Bone Health

One benefit of plant-based diets when it comes to phosphorus intake is that by avoiding meat products you will tend to have better phosphate-to-calcium ratios. On average, meat tends to have substantially more phosphorus than calcium. This makes for higher phosphorus-to-calcium ratios which are thought to potentially lead to decreased bone mass in meat eaters. This is because higher intakes of phosphorus promote binding and excretion of calcium needed for bone mineralization.28

Moreover, higher dietary phosphorus-to-calcium ratio of meats may contribute to secondary hyperparathyroidism—a condition that could lead to loss of bone mass. Specifically, when levels of phosphorus increase relative to calcium, there is a compensatory release of parathyroid hormone (PTH) that in turn stimulates calcium resorption from the bone.

In fact, data from RCTs have shown even short-term bouts (1 to 4 weeks) of low-calcium, high-phosphorus diets among men and women to lead to mild hyperparathyroidism.29,30

Keep in mind that it’s likely a bit more complicated than calcium-to-phosphorus ratios. For example, some studies have shown the negative association between bone mineral density and phosphorus may be dependent on protein and calcium intakes.31

But, lower phosphate intakes do seem to be yet another perk of following plant-based diets.

How Much Phosphorus Do Vegans Need?

The phosphorus needs of vegans are no different than the general population. At present, the RDA for phosphorus is 700 mg for both males and females 19 years of age and older.25 Needs do not go up in adulthood during pregnancy or lactation.32

Estimated requirements for the mineral (580 mg per day) are based on the relationship between plasma phosphorus concentrations and dietary phosphorus intake coupled with the known efficiency of intestinal absorption.32 A coefficient of variation of 10% was used rounding up to 700 mg.

Source: Micronutrients in Health and Disease. Kedar Prasad – Crc – 2011

The Vegan Diet and Phosphorus Restriction

Is There a Low Phosphorus Version of the Vegan Diet?

Vegans who have kidney disease often want to know if there are low phosphorus variants of the diet. Controlling phosphate in early-stage kidney disease is important. Serum levels of phosphorous elevate as eGFR (the rate at which kidneys filter wastes) decreases. Early initiation of reduced-phosphate protocols is advantageous for delaying renal bone disease and hyperparathyroidism.

Vegan diets have been designed to be low-phosphorus for patients with chronic renal failure.33 They tend to be low in protein which makes phosphate restriction that much easier.34 This is a highly specialized diet, so one would likely need to meet with a renal dietitian to get details on what such an eating plan would look like. Such diets are typically modified to allow up to 1000 mg of phosphates daily. In addition to modified diets, patients are usually encouraged to take phosphate binders with meals.34

Low Phosphorus Plant-Based Protein

Vegan protein, in general, tends to be lower in bioavailable phosphorus compared to meat proteins.35,8 Foods particularly low in bioavailable phosphate include nuts, seeds, and legumes.8

One pilot study of an animal model conducted by Moe, et al. found the bioavailability of phosphorus to be lower in rats with CKD that were fed grain-based chow compared with rats with CKD having been fed casein-based chow. The two diets had comparable protein and phosphorus content.36

In the same issue of CJASN, researchers further demonstrated a lower bioavailability of phosphorus from vegetarian foods compared to phosphorus from meat in patients with stage 3/4 CKD and normal serum phosphorus levels.37

The Phosphorus Pyramid

D’Alessandro, et al. devised the “phosphorus pyramid” meant to serve as a visual tool for managing dietary phosphate in patients with CKD.38 The pyramid consisted of foods distributed on six levels per their phosphorus content, bioavailability, and phosphorus to protein ratio.

Each level was given a colored edge with dark green at the base, followed by light green, yellow, light orange, dark orange, and red. The colors corresponded to recommended consumption frequencies. The base (green) consisted of plant foods and represented the foods with the highest recommended consumption frequency (unrestricted intake)—with the exception of dialysis patients who were advised to limit fruit and veggie consumption due to the high potassium content of these food groups.38

So, on balance, plant foods have a more favorable phosphorus and protein profiles compared to animal food sources.

Low Phosphorus Plant-Based Foods

Low phosphorus vegan foods include the following.

Bread
  • One flour tortillas (57 mg).39
  • One bagel (49.6 mg).40
  • One medium English muffins (61 mg).41
Grains (1/2 cup)
  • Barley, pearled/cooked (42.4 mg).42
  • Couscous (17 mg).43
  • Rice noodles (17.5 mg).44
Fruit
  • 1/2 cup of blueberries (8.5 mg).45
  • 1 medium apple (20 mg).46
  • 1/2 cup cherries (15 mg).47
  • 1 medium peach (30 mg).48
  • 1/2 cup strawberries (18 mg).49

Vegan Cheese and Phosphorus

Many people want to know whether or not plant-based cheeses contain phosphorus. This question often comes from folks who aren’t vegan but are looking to manage phosphorus intakes (kidney disease, etc.) and don’t want to give up cheese.

The good news is that vegan cheese tends not to contain phosphorus. Rather, they use citric acid and various cultures to accomplish the tangy flavor characteristic of cheese. (The tangy flavor of cheese is achieved by lactic and phosphoric acid, etc.).

Dairy cheese makers use milk proteins (casein). Milk contains fat suspended as droplets surrounded by membranes (because fat and water don’t mix). Membranes are packed with phospholipids, hence the phosphate content of cheese.

Vegan cheese makers usually coagulate protein from plant sources like cashews, at which point they add various substances to enhance the flavor profile.50

References

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  39. Tortillas, Ready-to-bake or -fry, Flour Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/5120/2
  40. Bagels, Plain, Enriched, with Calcium Propionate (includes Onion, Poppy, Sesame) Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/4818/2
  41. English Muffins, Wheat Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/baked-products/5035/2
  42. Barley, Pearled, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/5680/2
  43. Couscous, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/5699/2
  44. Rice Noodles, Cooked Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/5790/2
  45. Blueberries, Frozen, Unsweetened Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1853/2
  46. Apples, Raw, with Skin [includes Usda Commodity Food A343] Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1809/2
  47. Cherries, Sweet, Raw Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1867/2
  48. Peach, Raw Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1990/2
  49. Strawberries, Raw Nutrition Facts & Calories https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/2064/2
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Drew Davis

Hi! I'm Drew and this is the place where I nerd out about vegan and plant-based diets. I have a BS in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Alabama and have taken dozens of classes in areas like organic and biochemistry, food science, medical nutrition therapy, nutritional genomics, and vegetarian diets. I'm still learning every day, and on this blog, I'll be sharing everything I discover about vegan diets as I go.

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