Phosphate distributions simulated by seven state-of-the-art biogeochemical ocean circulation models are evaluated against observations of global ocean nutrient distributions. The biogeochemical models exhibit different structural complexities, ranging from simple nutrient-restoring to multi-nutrient NPZD type models. We evaluate the simulations using the observed volume distribution of phosphate. The errors in these simulated volume class distributions are significantly larger when preformed phosphate (or regenerated phosphate) rather than total phosphate is considered. Our analysis reveals that models can achieve similarly good fits to observed total phosphate distributions for a~very different partitioning into preformed and regenerated nutrient components. This has implications for the strength and potential climate sensitivity of the simulated biological carbon pump. We suggest complementing the use of total nutrient distributions for assessing model skill by an evaluation of the respective preformed and regenerated nutrient components.