Most packaged meals and snacks marketed to toddlers have more than the recommended amount of sodium per serving, meaning children as young as 1 are most likely eating far too much salt early in life, according to one of several studies on sodium presented this week.
The studies were presented at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism 2013 Scientific Sessions in New Orleans.
The findings were alarming to researchers since there is evidence a child's sodium intake is related to the likelihood that he or she will develop hypertension as an adult. Hypertension is a major risk factor of cardiovascular disease and the number-one killer of men and women in the United States.
"The good news is that commercial foods for babies, when they start complimentary feeding from 4 to 12 months ... are relatively low in sodium," explains Joyce Maalouf, the study's lead author and a fellow at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"But the products marketed to toddlers were significantly higher in sodium: more than 75% of the toddler meals and snacks had high sodium content."
Maalouf and her team reviewed more than 1,100 products specifically marketed to babies and toddlers that were sold in grocery stores. Any product that had more than 210 milligrams of sodium per serving was defined as being high in sodium, based on guidelines outlined by the Institute of Medicine and MyPlate.gov for salt intake and young children.
Some of the toddler meals tested had upwards of 630 milligrams of sodium per serving. Meals and "savory snacks" had the highest amount of sodium compared to the cereal bars and fruit snacks that were tested.
Maalouf and her team are not releasing the brand names of the foods they tested but described the meals as being readily available in grocery stores aisles stocked with food for babies and toddlers.
"We're talking meals that are pre-packed ... like mac and cheese, pasta with meat sauce, pizza, or chicken and vegetables," says Maalouf.
"These are not frozen meals, they're usually microwavable."
The UDSA recommends toddlers ages 1 to 3 consume between 1,000 and 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily.
She says parents need to be aware that eating too much salt can be a problem in young children and encourages people to read nutrition labels before buying meals or snacks for their children.
"These meals are not the only meal that kids will eat," says Maalouf. "They're growing, they're always snacking. So they're eating seven to eight servings and meals per day."
Two other studies being presented at the annual meeting focus on the global effects of too much sodium.
According to one, the average intake of sodium among three-quarters of the world's population was nearly 4,000 milligrams a day in 2010, almost double the World Health Organization's recommendation of 2,000 milligrams.
Researchers calculated in a second study that nearly 2.3 million people worldwide died from cardiovascular deaths attributable to too much sodium in 2010 alone.
"In the United States and similar countries, the burden for change lies with the government and with the food industry," says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist and lead author of the second study. Mozaffarian is the co-director of the Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology and associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "Salt is spread so evenly throughout our food system, there have to be policies to minimize how much sodium we eat."
Both studies were part of the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases study and were funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.