Licking the salt in kids' diets

Have we been too busy panicking about sugar to think about salt? While some food companies are trying to shrink our salt intake by putting less in their products, others are finding reasons to dump more salt in our arteries.

After surveying 28,000 food products, researchers at Sydney's George Institute for Global Health recently found that salt levels had increased, on average, by nine per cent between 2008 and 2011. And in case we're not salty enough, the coffee chain Gloria Jeans has added salted caramel latte to its menu.

If you're paying attention to the cooking pages you'll know that salted caramel is the flavour du jour as in Nigella Lawson's famous sweet and salty crunchy nut bars - salted peanuts and crushed Crunchy Bars stuck together with melted chocolate and golden syrup. Yep, I know our tastebuds need a treat now and again, but we also need to give our arteries a break.

Salt overload is bad news for arteries because it causes blood vessels to retain more fluid in order to balance the salt concentration in our blood. This boosts the volume of blood in the arteries causing high blood pressure - which over time can damage arteries leading to heart attack and stroke.

Yet even some young children are overdosing on salt, says Deakin University researcher Carley Grimes who recently checked the levels of salt in the urine of a group of Victorian five to 13-year-olds as part of the Salt and other Nutrient Intakes in Children Study.

"The results showed that these children were having an average of 6g of salt a day. This is high – 6g is the maximum daily limit set for adults and much higher than the maximum daily limit for four to eight year olds which 3.5g," says Grimes from the University's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research. "One child's levels were very high – the equivalent of 18g of salt and three times the maximum adult level."

Whether this translates into kids with high blood pressure isn't clear yet – that's the next step in the study.

"But there's evidence that reducing salt intake reduces blood pressure in children. If you can keep blood pressure at a healthy level you're giving children a good start," she says.

One way to decrease this salt load is to scan the label for foods with less sodium (salt consists of both sodium and chloride and it's the sodium in salt which can be a problem). But it may be that sodium isn't as high on parents' radar as sugar. Earlier this year a survey of almost 12,000 parents and carers visiting The Wiggles website found that checking food's sugar content was the priority for most of them when shopping for their children. Sodium didn't get a mention.

Here's a guide to rating a product's salt content when you read the nutrition panel: 120mg sodium per 100g = low; 120mg to 600mg sodium = moderate; over 600g sodium per 100g = high*.

These numbers help when you compare  labels,  especially in the bread and breakfast food aisles where there are big differences in sodium content between products ranging from 650mg sodium per 100g  to less than 300mg per 100g.

Other ways to trim children's salt intake? Along with obvious stuff like putting fruit in lunchboxes instead of salty snack foods, avoid simmer sauces and processed meats like ham, says Grimes.

"Lean roast chicken is a healthier sandwich filling and has less salt. You can also reduce the salt in a sandwich if you choose a cheese with a lower salt level - and skip the ham."

For more about salt and children's diets see the Australian Division of World Action on Salt & Health.

*Source: Australian Division of World Action on Salt & Health

This story Licking the salt in kids' diets first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.