The formose reaction has been a leading hypothesis for the prebiotic synthesis of sugars such as ribose for many decades but tends to produce complex mixtures of sugars and often tars. Channeling the formose reaction towards the synthesis of biologically useful sugars such as ribose has been a holy grail of origins-of-life research. Here, we tested the hypothesis that a simple, prebiotically plausible phosphorylating agent, acetyl phosphate, could direct the formose reaction towards ribose through phosphorylation of intermediates in a manner resembling gluconeogenesis and the pentose phosphate pathway. We did indeed find that addition of acetyl phosphate to a developing formose reaction stabilized pentoses, including ribose, such that after 5 h of reaction about 10-fold more ribose remained compared with control runs. But mechanistic analyses using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry showed that, far from being directed towards ribose by phosphorylation, the formose reaction was halted by the precipitation of Ca2+ ions as phosphate minerals such as apatite and hydroxyapatite. Adding orthophosphate had the same effect. Phosphorylated sugars were only detected below the limit of quantification when adding acetyl phosphate. Nonetheless, our findings are not strictly negative. The sensitivity of the formose reaction to geochemically reasonable conditions, combined with the apparent stability of ribose under these conditions, serves as a valuable constraint on possible pathways of sugar synthesis at the origin of life.