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Salt intake

Salt levels in infants and babies – should we be concerned?

Why is it important to regulate salt intake in babies?
Babies and infants need only small amounts of salt (sodium chloride) in their diets. It is an essential mineral, but too much can damage their developing kidneys (the organs which filter salt), and can also cause high blood pressure which can lead to more serious health problems in the future.

Should we be concerned?
In a word – yes. Research* has shown that many infants are being given foods which, although popular with children, are ‘adult’ foods and therefore have a higher salt content, such as yeast extract, gravy, stock and tinned pasta and beans.

Many infants are also being given cows’ milk as a main drink below the recommended age. Cows’ milk has a much higher salt (sodium) content (and also less vitamins and minerals such as iron) than either formula or breast milk and it is for these reasons that it should be restricted until 1 year of age.

Other foods which contain moderate levels of salt include commonly consumed foods such as breads, processed meats, cheese and breakfast cereals, although these contain other important nutrients and should be included, in moderation, as part of a healthy balanced diet.

What can be done to lower the salt intakes of babies and infants?
As 75% of salt is added during manufacture, the food industry needs to work harder to reduce levels of salt present within foods. However on a practical level there are several easy steps parents can take to ensure their child is not consuming too much salt. These include;

  • Using infant-specific weaning foods in their infants diet which will have been prepared with a strictly controlled salt content.
  • Take care when using ‘adult’ foods during weaning and look for reduced salt varieties where possible such as soups and canned beans/pasta.
  • Avoid use of products which have a high salt content but provide very little else in terms of nutrients; for example yeast extract, gravies and stock.
  • Do not use cows’ milk as a main drink until 12 months of age.
  • Where possible provide fresh, unprocessed foods such as fruit and vegetables which are naturally low in salt and contain many other nutrients.

As a guide; SACN (The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition) in 2003 set maximum levels of salt intake per day – these are:
Below 6 months of age: Less than 1g/day of salt (less than 0.4g or 400mg sodium)
Between 6 and 12 months of age: 1g/day of salt (0.4g or 400mg sodium)

    To put these figures into context:
  • A slice of white bread contains around 0.45g salt (0.18g/180mg sodium)
  • A tablespoon of gravy contains around 0.38g salt (0.15g/153mg sodium)
  • 100g canned spaghetti contains around 1.05g salt (0.42g/420mg sodium)
  • 1g yeast extract contains around 0.1g salt (0.04g/45mg sodium)
  • 100ml cows’ milk contains 0.14g salt (0.05g/55mg sodium) – compared to around 0.03g salt (0.015g/15mg sodium) in breastmilk.

As a guide, check food labels under ‘amount per 100g’. Salt is sometimes written as sodium; to convert sodium into salt times by 2.5. A food is classed as ‘high’ if it contains more than 1.5g salt (or 0.6g sodium) per 100g. A food is classed as ‘low’ if it contains 0.3g salt (0.1g sodium) per 100g.

Research

*Cribb VL, Warren JM and Emmett PM. Contribution of inappropriate complementary foods to the salt intake of 8-month old infants. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2011; doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2011.137