The Truth About Salt

The average four-year-old eats three times more salt than he needs. So how much is too much? And how do you choose the right foods to keep your children healthy?

The truth about salt

Adding salt to food has become as natural as eating itself to many of us. But recent newspaper reports have opened our eyes to the damage it could be doing. Headlines that claim “Salt is killing our children” are hard to ignore, but what do they mean, and how much of a problem is this seemingly-innocent seasoning?

Humans need salt. In fact, the average body contains a whole cupful of it – it’s used to carry electrical impulses to the muscles and nerves, and also regulates blood pressure. The body is normally pretty good at regulating levels – if it has too much salt, you become thirsty and drink fluids to flush it out. But there’s only so much the body can do, and when it becomes overloaded with salt, it’s impossible to flush all the excess away.

So why are we eating so much more salt now? Few people are guilty of liberally-peppering the family meal with gram upon gram of it.

The problem arises instead from processed convenience foods: responsible for 75 percent of our daily intake of salt. Although the high fat and calorie content of these foods is widely known, the fact they’re packed with salt is often overlooked.

And shockingly, food aimed at children is just as guilty. Analysis on the nutritional content of food and drink advertised on TV during children’s viewing times shows that between 95 and 99 percent of these foods contain a high proportion of fat, sugar or salt – and parents and experts are beginning to voice their disapproval.

Why salt can be bad

Some people think it’s just the elderly who need to watch their salt intake, as it makes them more prone to strokes from high blood pressure. But what children eat now can have a huge effect on their health later in life. A high salt intake may mean high blood pressure, osteoporosis, kidney stones, heart disease and strokes. Osteoporosis and kidney stones have even been detected in children – proving salt intake is a problem for their present as well as future health.

Research has even suggested that a high salt consumption can aggravate asthma. It was shown that a reduction in salt was associated with an improvement in symptoms of asthma. So although salt is not a direct cause, it seems a high intake can act as an aggravating factor.

Children may also become dehydrated from too much salt – especially worrying as it’s been shown that they often don’t drink enough fluid to protect their kidneys.

How much is too much?

A recent survey by the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) revealed the extent of over-consumption of salt among children. Under-ones are recommended to have less than one gram per day; one to three years, two grams per day; four to six years, three grams per day; and seven to 10 years, five grams per day.

The survey looked at typical foods consumed by children and discovered it was possible for them to consume up to 13.5 grams of salt per day by choosing the worst offenders at meal times.

It was also estimated that the average three- to four-year-old consumes nine to ten grams of salt each day – over three times the recommended amount.

Yet we need far less than even the recommended limits. “We actually need hardly any salt in our diet,” says Professor MacGregor. “Less than one gram a day for adults and even less for children. We can get all the sodium we need from vegetables and meat – we don’t need to add salt.”

Cut it out

Parents are often unaware of the worst offenders when filling their shopping trolleys. “Crisps have very high levels of salt, but you can tell they are salty,” explains Professor MacGregor. “Many breakfast cereals have hidden salt – Golden Grahams, for instance, have the same salt content, weight for weight, as seawater and more than a bag of crisps.”

Professor MacGregor believes salt levels in children’s foods should be more tightly monitored. “We found a Scooby Doo chicken burger meal that contained 2.8 grams of salt in a single serving. That’s over a whole day’s limit for a three-year-old and almost all of a six-year-old’s. How are we going to get the intake of salt down if manufacturers are allowed to produce foods with such high levels of salt?”

He suggests that parents read labels and remember that sodium is not the same as salt. If a label tells you there is one gram of sodium per 100 grams, you need to multiply that figure by two-and-a-half (so it contains 2.5 grams of salt per 100 grams).

He also recommends parents bear in mind that when labels give guideline daily amounts, it’s usually the six grams a day limit for adults that they are quoting – children need much less.

He also suggests you check labels and don’t add any salt in cooking or at the table. Use black pepper and spices as alternative seasonings. Don’t forget that stock cubes and soy sauce contain high levels of salt, as do ketchups. And be careful with packed lunches – “maybe begin by cutting crisps to twice a week instead of every day – and remember to check the labels of things like cereal bars,” suggests Professor MacGregor.

Some companies are taking notice of parent’s concerns and have begun to reduce the salt levels in manufactured foods. But ultimately, the responsibility lies with parents.

The final words of Professor MacGregor should bring hope to any parent wanting to change their children’s taste: “Weaning children off salty foods may take a little while. They may reject less salty foods to start with, but the tastebuds will soon adjust, if you persevere, and soon your kids will reject salty food because it tastes so horrible.”

Table salt

Food Salt per percentage of a child’s portion four-year-old’s daily recommended intake:

  • Chicken nuggets 1.75g 58%
  • Pizza 1.25g 42%
  • Can of beans and sausages 1.5g 50% 
  • Doughnut 1.2g 40%
  • Burger 2g 67%
  • Milkshake 0.5g 17%
  • Frosties cereal 1.5g 50%
  • Cheese or ham lunchable pack 2.4g 80%

Related links

  • Recipes for Kids: Kids love to cook, and these recipes can be made as a family activity. Your child will learn to measure and combine basic ingredients, and they'll see how food transforms from raw to cooked! More recipes next month!
  • TV Clip - Good Eating Technique: Giving Andrew praise for eating four mouthfuls of his dinner turns out to be a much more successful way to get him eating than by telling him off.
  • Raising a Good Eater: As seen on the show the Good Eater Technique can be a useful method to calm and encourage a fussy eater, and help get mealtimes back on track…
  • Hidden Nasties - food facts you need to know: Taking a look at what’s really in your child’s food.

Find out more

  • CASH (Consensus Action on Salt and Health) is a group of specialists concerned with salt and its effects on health.
  • The Food Standards Agency has information on the amount of salt you should eat, 'hidden' salt and reading labels.
  • NHS Direct answers the common questions about salt and your diet.

Related Advice