A trip to local grocery stores and a reading of the nutrition labels will tell the tale: there are high levels of sodium in processed toddler foods.
The Journal of Pediatrics published a study last week warning of the sodium content in packaged snacks and lunches for toddlers, levels that can exceed guidelines used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those problems include high blood pressure and hypertension. Too much salt may even contribute to obesity.
Simon said early in life, our "taste preferences are often developed and lay the groundwork for what we like over the course of our lifetime." So if a child is eating high-sodium foods when a toddler, she’ll want her food to be salty as she gets older.
What’s a parent to do? Here's some advice we've gathered from nutrition experts:
1. Learn to read nutrition labels on packaged foods, and understand the various levels of recommended salt intake.
Dr. Mary Cogswell, a CDC scientist, suggests no more that 210 milligrams of sodium per serving for young children:
“210 mg of sodium is based on The Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that children ages 1 to 3 years consume no more than 1,500 mg of salt a day. CDC researchers chose this upper intake level because it's estimated that kids eat about seven servings daily of grains, protein and dairy, an intake recommended by USDA’s MyPlate. Meals that contained more than 210 milligrams of salt per serving — or about one-seventh of the daily recommendation — were considered high in sodium.”
2. Read the entire label, including the ingredients, to find total salt content of a meal or snack.
Mari Orozco, a nutrition educator at Lawndale school district’s Billy Mitchell Elementary School, tells parents that salt content is also known as:
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
3. Watch the serving sizes. They can add up to too much salt.
Steve Baldwin, director of nutrition programs with Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, cautions that serving size can increase the single sodium amount listed on a label.
Most often, the amount of sodium on a label is for a single serving. But especially with snack foods, the package can contain several servings, so multiply the sodium amount by the number of servings your toddler eats to get the correct amount of salt intake.
To read more on nutrition labels, the Food and Drug Administration provides guidance here.
4. Buy fresh produce and turn them into fun and healthy snacks for your kids.
Rosa Renteria, a Lawndale mother of four, grew up drinking aguas frescas and eating lots of fruits and vegetables that she helped her grandfather grow in Mexico. In California, working full time and raising her kids, she too often resorted to fast food and packaged meals.
After taking and now leading nutrition classes through the Lawndale Elementary School District, Renteria said she has learned that buying or growing fresh can be just as easy as buying fast food or packaged soups. “An apple is an apple, an orange is an orange. You have no salt. If it's fresh and it comes from a tree it should be good,” she said.
A nutrition trainer for the Lawndale school district, Mari Orzoco, told a group of parents at a recent “Salt and Fats” training to get rid of the chips. Cut fruit and keep it out, she suggested. “Kids will eat it if it’s out and available to them.”
If slices of apple really won’t appeal to your little ones, try making it fun, says nutrition trainer Camille Thorsen, also with the Lawndale school district. She recently showed parents how to make “Ants On a Log.”
Ingredients: short celery sticks, cream cheese or peanut butter, and raisins.
Fill each celery stick with a “thumb-full” of cream cheese or peanut butter and sprinkle raisins on top.
5. Grow your own produce, and have your kids help.
Lawndale School District hired Kris Lauritson as the "master gardener." She gardens with parents, teachers and students and gives them advice on what to grow in winter (carrots and leafy greens do well). She also explains how to protect against pests (use pesticides as a last resort), and how to use mulch to keep the garden beds moist.
Bananas, strawberries, pomegranates, and carrots are currently growing at the William Anderson Elementary School garden. The garden has also produced Swiss chard, tomatillos, artichoke, and kohlrabi.
Anne Schmitt, 3rd-grade teacher at Anderson Elementary, takes her students into the garden often. She also has a two-burner camping stove in her classroom and cooks up the produce with her students.
Lisbeth Cabrera, a 5th-grade student, loved growing and then eating her first-ever artichoke in Schmitt's class. She went home and told her family about them.
"My mom has never seen them, so she was like, "What is this?" Lisbeth said. "I’m like, 'Oh, it's an artichoke,'" she told her mom. "So we got one and my mom made it and my whole family got together and we all got a piece of the artichoke. So it was really good."
6. Use less salt at home.
Add salt at the end of the coking process so it coats the food and it will be more apparent to the taste buds, said Miranda Westfall, nutritionist at UCLA’s Fit for Healthy Weight Program. This will make it less likely that someone will want to add more to the food.
Also, take the salt-shaker off the table, said Rosa Renteria, a parent educator in the Lawndale school district’s gardening program. “I was the salt-aholic of the family. I’ve changed that. I’ve removed the salt shaker [from] the table.”
Use herbs to provide season food rather than salt, adds Orozco.
7. Eat home-cooked family meals together.
Baldwin with the county’s Department of Public Health is convinced there's value to the good old-fashioned family meal.
"There's really good data that shows that kids that eat together with their family tend to eat healthier foods," he said. "There's really a wide array of social benefits from eating as a family, and one is healthier diets."