Kids eat too much salt with popular “kid-friendly” foods such as chicken nuggets, pizza and pasta accounting for almost half of their sodium intake, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings paint an uphill battle with reducing salt in the diets of American children. The CDC reports that more than 90 percent of American children consume too much sodium. In 2009 to 2010, CDC researchers interviewed and examined 2,266 children ages six to 18 as part of the ongoing  “What We Eat in  America,” the dietary survey of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The results were published in Tuesday’s issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the CDC, and were presented at a media briefing.

Among the findings:

  • U.S. school-aged children consumed an estimated 3,279 mg of sodium daily with the highest total intake (3,672 mg/d) and intake per 1,000 kcal (1,681 mg) among high school–aged children;
  • 43 percent of children’s sodium come from foods frequently marketed to kids at restaurants and grocery stores, including pizza, breads, cheese, soups, pasta, cold cuts, savory snacks, and Mexican mixed dishes;
  • 65 percent of kids’ sodium intake came from store foods. Thirteen percent from fast food/pizza restaurants. Nine percent from school cafeterias. And 5 percent from restaurants;
  • Dinner appeared to be the saltiest meal of the day, with 39 percent of sodium consumed at dinner compared with 29 percent at lunch, 16 percent during snack time and 15 percent at breakfast;
  • One in six kids have elevated blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Identifying where and how children consume salt is important in developing interventions to reduce salt intake. Researchers acknowledged they have a long ways to go to reach healthy levels of sodium intake. The study authors note a 40 percent reduction in sodium intake across the country could save 280,000 to 500,000 lives over 10 years.

High blood pressure, which can be related to high sodium intake, heart disease and stroke are more common in adulthood. But public health experts continue to assert that the origins of these conditions begin in childhood and are strongly influenced by diet and behavior. The American Heart Association is working to reduce sodium intake in an effort to meet its goal of reducing the burden of heart disease and stroke by 20 percent by the year 2020.

Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, a registered dietitian and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, said the results weren’t surprising given what’s ubiquitously marketed to children.

“We really have to work with the food industry and get food manufacturers to step up to the plate and lower sodium in foods,” she said. “The food industry has got to innovate. The European Union mandates sodium limits in products, but here in America, it’s up to individual companies. Personal responsibility is important, but we need to make the food environment one in which it’s easier, especially for kids, to make healthy choices.”

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