Salt and Children’s Health – A Menace in the Making

The message that children eat far too much salt and that it primes them for serious health conditions in the future is a media frenzy waiting to happen. Research shows that the problem is widespread, and that packaged food is the prime culprit. Better-for-you reduced salt foods, although not all that popular with adult consumers, stand an excellent chance of being embraced by parents who want to keep their youngsters’ exposure to the essential but also potentially harmful nutrient of sodium in check.

Processed and restaurant food over-salted

Rarely is the topic of children’s habitual excess salt consumption given much attention by the media, while sugar and its presumed impacts on childhood obesity and hyperactivity are never out of the headlines. Cutting down on salt is seen as a preoccupation of the middle aged. The fact that children also suffer from high blood pressure, which is exacerbated by high sodium intake and predisposes them to cardiovascular disease and strokes in later life, has not yet sunk into public health consciousness. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), one in nine American children have high blood pressure, and for those aged eight to 17, the figure rises to one in six.

In February 2015 a new CDCP study, for which 1,000 packaged foods marketed at infants and toddlers were analysed, came to the alarming conclusion that 70% contained way too much salt. According to the researchers, nearly 80% of US children aged one to three exceed the recommended maximum daily salt intake of 1.5g.

This study follows on from a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released in the summer of the previous year, which put the figure of children aged six to 18 consuming excess salt at over 90%. Just 10 food categories were responsible for 43% of the sodium consumed; these included pizza, bread, processed meat and chicken products, cheese, savoury snacks and ready meals.

The issue is a global one, particularly across developed countries. Australian Health Survey data released in 2014 showed that four- to eight-year old Australian children’s daily salt intake of 5.1g already exceeded the WHO 5g maximum recommended for adults. Nine to 13-year olds consumed 6.2g a day. In the UK the campaign group Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH) released a study in March 2015, scrutinising “family-friendly” chained restaurants’ offerings. It found that 28% of meals that were either aimed directly at children or likely to appeal to them contained more than 2g of salt. Burger King’s Kid’s Veggie Bean Burger with Small Fries, for example, was laced with 4.6g of salt.

“Low salt” a deterrent for most adults…

Packaged food is the main source of salt in the diet of people living in industrialised countries, and this is particularly true of young children who eat out less frequently than adults. Our nutrition data shows that German, Japanese and Mexican consumers derive, on average, over 7g of salt per day through the consumption of packaged foods, followed closely by Saudi Arabia, Chile and the USA.

It is evident from our health and wellness data that BFY reduced-salt packaged food is not widely popular. Global value sales in 2014 amounted to US$4.4 billion – a rather modest amount when compared with the US$95.3 billion racked up by BFY reduced-fat packaged food. In Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Chile sales of BFY reduced-salt food are negligible, while in Germany and the US the category is stagnant.

Everybody in the industry knows that the words “reduced salt” on product packaging are not exactly a crowd-puller. Generally, only people who have been told explicitly by their physician or other health professional to cut down on their salt intake, usually because of an existing condition such as high blood pressure or kidney disease, will be motivated to opt for such offerings.

The problem is that consumers are used to high levels of salt in their food and fear that reduced-salt equates to insipidness. For this reason, across many countries and regions there is an on-going long-term push to remove salt from the food supply gradually and by stealth, with many companies signed up to governmentally-directed targets.

…but a winner for parents of young children

With young children, however, the taste issue poses much less of a hurdle. A palate that has never grown accustomed to high levels of salt requires very little for a pleasing taste experience, and commercial baby food is usually tightly regulated to contain only very small quantities. As long as parents are made aware that keeping salt intake to a minimum protects their children’s health, many will do their best to keep a close watch on salt levels, especially in the early years, when they exert virtually full control over what their little ones consume.

The upshot is that parents who are conscious of the salt issue are highly likely to purchase foods labelled “low in salt” for their children. The current sugar storm will not last forever – soon another bad boy ingredient will take its place, and it may well be salt. Once aware of potentially harmful ingredients, parents are inclined to check food labels very carefully rather than trusting manufacturers to take care that their formulations are nutritionally appropriate for their vulnerable children. Manufacturers need to act fast if they want to avoid criticism, and now is also the time to prepare their portfolios to include more products for young children explicitly positioned as being low in salt.

Learn more about salt consumption in our Nutrition system