Monitoring salt intake in children

The dangers of hidden salt.
The dangers of hidden salt. 

Did you know that a hot dog alone provides 80 percent of an eight-year-old’s maximum daily salt intake? Or that a Vegemite sandwich accounts for 20 percent of an older child’s recommended daily amount?

These are the types of statistics the Australian Division behind the World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) are aiming to highlight during Salt Awareness Week (26th March – 1 April). This year, the emphasis is on educating the public about the relationship between high salt intake and stroke.

High levels of salt increases blood pressure and in children, may contribute to future cardiovascular problems, including stroke.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) suggests an upper daily limit of between 2.5 grams (for 1-3 year olds) to 5.75 grams (for 14-18 year olds), however a Deakin University study, of nearly 260 primary school students showed that 71 percent of children had exceeded the recommended upper daily salt limit.

The study also revealed that children consuming too much salt are at risk of becoming obese later in life.

Carley Grimes, the lead researcher in this study explained that a higher dietary salt intake is also responsible for a child feeling more thirsty and “in an environment where soft drinks are readily available the child satisfies their thirst with a soft drink, beverages which are associated with weight gain.”

A 2008 survey in the UK also showed a strong link between consuming too much salty food and drinking soft drinks. Dr. He, one of the authors of the study said, “If children cut their salt intake by half (an average reduction of 3 grams a day), there would be a decrease of approximately two sugar sweetened soft drinks per week per child, so each child would decrease calorie intake by almost 250 calories per week. Not only would reducing salt intake lower blood pressure in children, but it could also play a role in helping to reduce obesity and the risk of cardiovascular disease as an adult.”

Alarmingly, major sources of salt in the diets of these children were identified as everyday foods: bread, breakfast cereals, processed meats and cheese. A salt score card developed by AWASH shows that a typical child’s food intake over a day can mean they consume more than 6 grams of salt every day. However, if low-salt options are chosen, the amount of salt consumed decreases to just over 2 grams.

In order to reduce the effort involved in having to constantly search for foods low in salt, Grimes applied dietary modelling to reveal that the application of internationally recognized salt targets on Australian foods would lower daily salt intake in Australian children by up to 20 percent.

Unfortunately these international salt targets are not in full operation in Australia. In an interview with the Herald Sun, Professor Bruce Neal of the George Institute for International Health said that while countries like the USA and Britain have introduced limits for salt in their most commonly consumed foods, Australia’s efforts in comparison were “piecemeal and progressing too slowly”.

This is because, although the federal government set up the Food and Health Dialogue, which aims to set healthy targets for salt, sugar and saturated fat across commonly consumed foods back in 2009, salt targets for only five food categories were identified as of November 2011. To make up for the slow response, The George Institute for Global Health has setup interim targets for 85 categories in the hope that it would give the food industry some direction.

AWASH is hoping the food industry will use their targets as a guideline to reduce salt contents to more acceptable levels by 2013.

Even if food manufacturers abide by these new salt content targets, it is ultimately up to the parents and kids to choose foods that are low in salt. The Drop the Salt! campaign launched by AWASH, has some tips for parents to help choose snacks and foods low in salt:

• Check food labels and compare products, brands and varieties to choose the low salt options. If the labelling lists sodium content, multiply that amount by 2.5 to get the salt content in the product. So, 120mg sodium = 300mg salt.
• Choose foods which have less than 120mg/100g of sodium (low in salt) and avoid foods more than 500mg/100g of sodium (high in salt).
• Don’t add salt to your children’s foods and discourage them from adding salt at the table. Add lemon juice, garlic, vinegar or herbs and spices instead.
• Avoid stock cubes, soy sauce, mustard, pickles and mayonnaise where possible. At the very least, choose low salt varieties.
• Limit salty snacks to once a week as a treat.

For more information about the dangers of salt and practical tips, visit the AWASH website.

Do you limit your child's daily salt intake? What else do you do to ensure they stay healthy? Share with other members on the Essential Kids' Forums.

Alarmingly, major sources of salt in the diets of these children were identified as everyday foods: bread, breakfast cereals, processed meats and cheese.