Kyieda Gamble is thrilled that her 17-month-old son, Thomas, likes to snack on green beans. Her goal is to feed her children lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, while avoiding three things on her hit list as much as possible: chemicals, salt and sugar.
Many health experts wish that more parents were like the married mother of two. Gamble breastfed Thomas for six months and is doing the same for her infant daughter, Irah. And she pores over nutritional labels.
Paying attention to ingredients is important since 75 percent of some toddler food sold in stores is high in salt, according to Joyce Maalouf, M.S., M.P.H., lead author of a new study examining the sodium content of 1,115 baby and toddler food items.
Sodium levels way too high
High-sodium products had more than 210 mg of sodium per serving. The study, described as the first of its kind and presented at an American Heart Association research session in New Orleans, found sodium levels three times as high in some toddler meals — 630 mg per serving. The Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily limit is 1,000 to 1,500 mg for 1-year-olds to 3-year-olds.
“Previous reports have shown that children are consuming too much sodium,” says Maalouf, a fellow at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“Too much sodium in a child’s diet can lead to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.”
African-Americans disproportionately suffer
These are all conditions that disproportionately affect African-Americans. More than 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure, possibly due to a gene that makes them more salt-sensitive, according to the American Heart Association. Just a half-teaspoon of salt is enough to raise the blood pressure of people with this trait, researchers say.
African-Americans have the highest rates of high blood pressure, or hypertension, in the world. Known as the silent killer, it also strikes harder and earlier — another reason to minimize sodium in children’s diets.
It’s best if children learn to appreciate the natural taste of food. They acquire a taste for salt and sugar based on what they’re fed.
“They are not born liking salt,” Maalouf points out. “The less they are exposed to salt, especially when they are young, the less they will want it.”
There is a silver lining
The good news, she says, is that food for babies less than a year old tends to be lower in sodium, such as the stage 2 and 3 meals. However, Maalouf says, “there is a wide range of variation so it is very important for parents to look at the nutritional labels.”
The biggest culprits tend to be toddler food and savory snacks. Store shelves are filled with an ever-increasing variety of snacks and meals for babies. Gamble, who lives with her family in Washington, D.C., tries the healthier versions of these products in moderation. Her motto is to “keep it really, really simple” — basic table food now that her son is older, with apples and carrots as snacks or frozen strawberries in place of sugary ice pops.
Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Heart Association, says the simple approach is best since sodium naturally occurs in lots of food and it shows up in unexpected places, such as sweets.
Keeping it simple also helps to prevent the palate from being conditioned to eating food laden with salt, sugar, spices and condiments, which are also high in sodium.
Here are other tips from Horn, who also teaches preventive medicine at Northwestern University:
- Avoid boxes, bags and jars. Most sodium comes from processed foods, she says. Instead of buying packaged spaghetti, make your own with pasta and sauce.
- Control the messages that your child receives. Even toddlers recognize golden arches or jingles for fast food and snacks.
- Buy unsalted versions of potato chips, French fries, popcorn and crackers
- Serve oatmeal or Cream of Wheat over ready-to-eat cereal, especially brands with lots of sugar.
- Think outside the box. Horn cites a woman at an airport who used a spoon to mash a banana before partially peeling it to feed her child.
- Be selective with sodium. Cutting back across the board allows for an occasional splurge on items such as cheese, which offers some calcium and protein.
- Work around your busy schedule. Save time by microwaving a potato, adding chopped vegetables and even a little cheese.
“It’s a matter of beginning with the end in mind,” Horn says. “Don’t wait until the last minute to plan meals.
Yanick Rice Lamb, who specializes in health and social issues, teaches journalism at Howard University.