WASHINGTON - October 31 - A new study shows that reducing salt intake in children quickly lowers their blood pressure. If their blood pressure remains lower, those kids could experience lower rates of heart attacks and strokes as they age. But according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), makers of popular packaged and restaurant foods make it virtually impossible for children not to consume unhealthy levels of salt if they eat them.
The study, the first-ever meta-analysis of salt-reduction studies in children, was conducted by Feng J. He and Graham A. MacGregor at St. George’s University of London and published in the November issue of the journal Hypertension. It found that curbing salt intake in kids reduced their systolic and diastolic blood pressures by 1 millimeter of mercury (mm Hg) each. Those numbers may sound small, but the authors write that if extended across the population into adulthood, the lower levels would have “major public health implications in terms of preventing cardiovascular disease in the future.” High blood pressure is a major cause of heart attacks and strokes.
Given the extremely high sodium content of many processed and restaurant foods—including many foods designed for and marketed to children—the chances of lowering kids’ blood pressure seem remote without major intervention from industry and government, according to CSPI. A normal child aged 4 to 8 typically needs only 1,200 milligrams per day, according to the Institute of Medicine, but the typical child consumes at least 2,800 per day.
“Sodium intake is usually perceived as something that middle-aged and older people need to be concerned about,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But middle-aged parents should be equally concerned about the sodium in their kids’ diets, since it is increasingly clear that a child’s blood pressure points to where it will end up in adulthood.”
Consider a typical six-year-old’s diet. Perhaps the day begins with Rice Krispies with banana and 1 percent milk. Say lunch is a grilled cheese sandwich, a cup of Campbell’s Goldfish Pasta and Meatballs soup and another glass of milk. Dinner might be a Chicken Strips convenience meal from Kid Cuisine and a glass of apple juice. As far as calories are concerned, that diet’s 1,511 is right on target. But its 3,233 mg of sodium is almost triple what a six-year-old should get in a day. It’s also more than the 1,500 to 2,300 mg of sodium that adults should consume. (Adults consume at least 3,500 mg per day.)
In contrast, a healthier diet that included oatmeal, milk, and orange juice for breakfast; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fruit leather, an apple, and milk for lunch; a snack of whole grain Fig Newtons and milk; and a roast chicken drumstick and mashed sweet potatoes for dinner only provides 866 mg of sodium. (See how various sample diets stack up here.)
The authors of the Hypertension study also note that the high salt content of snack food aimed at kids conditions their taste buds to expect saltier foods as adults.
CSPI has been urging the Food and Drug Administration to reduce the sodium content of processed and restaurant foods for almost 30 years. In 2005, CSPI called on the FDA to regulate salt as a food additive, as opposed to a “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, ingredient. In June of this year, the American Medical Association endorsed that call and urged the FDA to work toward a 50-percent sodium reduction in processed and restaurant foods. Achieving that reduction would save an estimated 150,000 lives a year.
“Approximately 65 million Americans have high blood pressure. Americans spend more than $15 billion on drugs to lower their blood pressure. Yet, the FDA is doing virtually nothing to encourage consumers to reduce their intake or food processors or restaurants to cut sodium levels in their foods,” according to Jacobson. “It’s bad enough that rates of obesity and diabetes in children have soared, but we’re also putting kids on a path to high blood pressure and heart disease by including so much salt in their diets."
Officials at the National Institutes of Health wrote a commentary in Hypertension that stated: “The action needed is to modestly and persistently reduce salt in the food supply, particularly snack foods and fast foods, an increasing staple of the diets of children and youth, as well as many canned and processed foods.”