How to Shake the Salt Habit

Some of your child's favorite foods are full of sodium. We've got a simple plan to help your family cut back.

Why Is Too Much Salt Bad for Kids?

As nutritional evils go, you might assume that salt is a relatively minor one for kids. A high-sodium diet seems like an adults-only health threat. Or is it? Kid faves such as ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, a slice of pizza, or a grilled cheese sandwich each contain more than half the sodium a child is supposed to eat in a whole day. It's no surprise, then, that kids down two and a half times the 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

Experts are already seeing the dangerous effects of salt overload. Studies show that a high-sodium diet contributes to high blood pressure in children. Though hypertension used to be rare in kids, 4 to 5 percent of them have it today, says Stephen Daniels, MD, PhD, past chair of the American Heart Association's Council on Cardiovascular Diseases in the Young. Along with contributing to high blood pressure, salty foods are often high in calories too, fueling the obesity epidemic. And because those salty meals and snacks make your child thirsty, he may end up drinking soda and extra juice, piling on even more calories, says Graham MacGregor, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine at St. George's Hospital Medical School, in London.

Too much salt doesn't harm just the heart. Kidney stones, which were once a rare occurrence in kids, have now become a common childhood problem, according to Johns Hopkins Children's Center researchers. The likely cause: eating too much salty food and not drinking enough water, a dangerous combination that causes kids to excrete excessive amounts of calcium, which can crystallize in the urine as kidney stones. Taking in plenty of water helps prevent this process, but few children drink enough. Years of eating too much salt also encourages the growth of H. pylori, the pathogen linked to ulcers and stomach cancer.

Where Is All This Salt Coming From?

Even if your kids seem hooked on salty food, you can retrain their taste buds and reverse the damage. According to a study published in Hypertension, when infants and children cut their sodium intake in half, their blood pressure dropped immediately. That may help children lower their risk of heart disease and stroke as they get older, as it has in Finland. A 30-year cut-the-salt campaign lowered blood pressure nationwide, slashing stroke and heart disease deaths by 75 to 80 percent in people under 65.

But ditching the salt in your child's diet is trickier than you think. It's not just a matter of hiding the shaker: Seventy percent of the sodium in a child's diet actually comes from processed foods (a fact that didn't escape the American Medical Association, which in 2007 called upon the FDA to reduce the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant foods). Fortunately, many companies have introduced low-sodium versions of the salty foods kids love. We scoured every aisle of the supermarket to find the best picks.

What Are the Best Low-Sodium Canned Goods?

The good news: Many canned foods now come in low-salt versions and still taste great. The bad news: A "reduced sodium" claim doesn't automatically mean the product is low in salt, so it can be tricky to make the best choice. The options below measure up.

Smart Picks

  • Campbell's Chunky Healthy Request chicken noodle soup: 480mg/cup
  • Amy's Light in Sodium low-fat cream of tomato soup: 340mg/cup
  • Amy's Light in Sodium traditional refried beans: 190mg/half cup
  • Classico roasted garlic tomato sauce: 220mg/half cup
  • Ragu Light No Sugar Added tomato and basil sauce: 330mg/half cup
  • Chicken of the Sea chunk light tuna in water - 50% less sodium: 125mg/2 oz.

What Are the Best Low-Sodium Breads?

You'd think that this aisle of the supermarket would be a low-sodium zone, but don't be fooled: Bread is actually one of the biggest sources of salt in a child's diet. Fortunately, the least-salty bread we found was also the whole wheat variety that packed the most fiber. But if your kid is seriously stuck on white bread, go for Wonder Kids.

Smart Picks

  • Arnold natural soft wheat bread : 135mg/slice
  • Martin's classic or whole wheat potato bread: 120mg and 125mg/slice
  • Wonder Kids : 115mg/slice
  • Pepperidge Farm 100% stoneground whole wheat bread: 90mg/slice
  • Toufayan whole wheat pita bread: 160mg/pita
  • Pepperidge Farm hot dog and hamburger buns: 180mg/bun
  • 1869 buttermilk biscuits: 300mg/biscuit
  • Progresso plain bread crumbs: 52mg/tablespoon

What Are the Best Low-Sodium Cereals?

Many kids' cereals are surprisingly high in sodium, and the seemingly healthy whole-grain ones are no exception -- some have more salt than potato chips! These, with under 200mg of sodium per half-cup serving, are also low in sugar.

Smart Picks

  • Kashi Organic Promise Autumn Wheat: 0mg sodium, 4g sugar
  • Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats: 5mg sodium, 10g sugar
  • EnviroKidz Organic Orangutan-O's: 43mg sodium, 6g sugar
  • Earth's Best Sesame Street Honey Nut Organic On-the-Go O's: 90mg sodium, 4g sugar
  • General Mills Fruity Cheerios: 90mg sodium, 6g sugar
  • Kellogg's Frosted Flakes: 93mg sodium, 7g sugar
  • General Mills Dora Cinnamon Stars: 120mg sodium, 4g sugar
  • Post Honey Bunches of Oats: 127mg sodium, 4g sugar
  • Regular instant oatmeal (1 packet): 80mg sodium, 0g sugar

What Are the Best Low-Sodium Meats and Deli?

Meat naturally contains a little sodium, but deli meats have a lot since they're preserved in salt. But even in the fresh-meat section, products are often "enhanced" with salty brine (you'll see it on the label). Look for "natural" on the label instead.

Unfortunately, when it comes to ham, even the low-sodium versions can be pretty salty, so try to find ways to cut back. For example, combine low-sodium ham with no-salt-added roast beef when you make sandwiches.

Although cheese is an excellent source of both calcium and protein, this is another food that tends to be high in salt. Whenever possible, go for low-sodium types such as fresh mozzarella and the choices below.

Smart Picks

  • Natural chicken breast: 22mg/2 oz.
  • Oscar Mayer natural turkey breast: 364mg/2 oz.
  • Just Perfect natural turkey breast: 280mg/2 oz.
  • Bob Evans Express Lite sausage: 110mg/link
  • Jimmy Dean fully cooked hickory-smoked bacon: 66mg/slice
  • Hebrew National reduced-fat beef franks: 360mg/frank
  • Russer reduced-sodium bologna: 200mg/slice
  • Alpine Lace yellow reduced-fat, reduced-sodium American cheese: 300mg/slice
  • Laughing Cow Mini Babybel Light Original: 160mg/piece

What Are the Best Low-Salt Snacks?

Processed snacks are often high in salt, calories, and fat. Grab fresh or dried fruit and unsalted nuts (for kids over 4) instead; use reduced-sodium peanut butter or yogurt as dips, or serve your kids these low-salt treats (all under 13g of sugar too!),

Smart Picks

  • Keebler Right Bites Fudge Shoppe Grasshoppers: 70mg/pouch
  • Goldfish chocolate graham crackers: 75mg/pack
  • Quaker Quakes mini rice snacks, chocolate: 45mg/7 cakes
  • Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix bar, mixed berry: 80mg/bar
  • Kashi TLC Chewy granola bar, peanut butter: 90mg/bar
  • Wheat Thins low-sodium crackers: 80mg/16 crackers
  • Premium low-sodium saltine crackers: 50mg/11 crackers
  • Newman's Own low-sodium butter microwave popcorn: 100mg/3 1/2 cups
  • Guiltless Gourmet unsalted yellow corn tortilla chips: 26mg/18 chips

What Are the Best Low-Salt Condiments and Spreads?

A spoonful of salad dressing makes the veggies go down, but it can also add 300mg of sodium. Peanut butter is also salty. But you don't have to give up these foods (especially since peanut butter is packed with nutrients). Instead, keep your eye on serving size, and get creative: Flavor veggies with lemon or lime, thin ranch dressing with skim milk, and blend regular and no-salt ketchup.

Smart Picks

  • Heinz No Salt Added tomato ketchup: 0mg/tablespoon
  • Honey Cup honey mustard: 0mg/teaspoon
  • Health Valley Italian Ranch: 100mg/tablespoon
  • Kraft Sweet 'n Sour Sauce: 0mg/tablespoon
  • Kikkoman Less Sodium soy sauce: 575mg/tablespoon
  • Smucker's Natural No Salt Added creamy peanut butter: 0mg/tablespoon
  • Philadelphia whipped cream cheese: 45mg/tablespoon

How Can You Make Over Favorite Foods?

Try our simple tweaks when you make these kid-friendly dishes.

Ramen Noodles

One package has 1,780mg of salt! Use half the seasoning packet, then copy the "suggested serving" on the box by adding frozen snow peas and shredded carrots -- they'll soften in the soup.

Mac and Cheese

It's creamy, delicious, and super-salty, coming in at 600 to 1,000mg per serving. The fix? Serve it as a small side dish along with lean meat, cooked veggies, and a salad -- not as a main meal.

Rice and Pasta Side Dishes

They're loaded with 600 to 1,200mg of sodium per serving. Choose brands with a flavor packet, like Uncle Ben's or Near East, and use half of it.

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

You could be batting 1,000 milligrams. Combine low-sodium bread with a slice of reduced-sodium cheese to bring that number way down.


The sodium content is off the pie charts! Make your own using Toufayan whole wheat pitas, Classico roasted garlic pasta sauce, and Sargento aged provolone cheese (125mg/slice).

Hamburger Seasonings

Much of the flavoring comes from the 660 to 830mg of sodium in each cup. Give your burgers some zest with Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning instead.

Pop Quiz: Which Is Saltier?

  • Yellow mustard or ketchup
  • Parmesan cheese or part-skim mozzarella
  • Chocolate ice cream or chocolate cake


  • Ketchup: 190mg per tablespoon; Yellow mustard: 132mg per teaspoon. (These are official USDA serving sizes.)
  • Parmesan cheese: 465mg per 1/4 cup; Part-skim mozzarella: 132mg per 1/4 cup.
  • Chocolate cake: 214mg per slice; Chocolate ice cream: 50mg per medium scoop.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the March 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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