A Unique Child

How Much Salt is Too Much in the Early Years?

Early years settings must take action to safeguard children from the risks of eating too much salt, says chef, dietician and founder of Grub4Life, Nigel Denby…

Recent revelations that there are high salt levels in children’s pub and restaurant meals are no surprise to those of us at Grub4life. We have been trying to drum home the message for many years now: young children’s bodies can’t handle too much salt! This is a crucial issue. Whilst salt levels in restaurant food needs addressing, we can’t ignore the salt our children consume in their every day foods. Just one packet of crisps contains more salt than a two-year-old should eat in an entire day; children’s kidneys are simply not developed enough to cope with the amount of salt in some of our most popular foods. If children eat these foods all the time, their kidneys are under permanent strain, which can lead to high blood pressure and then heart disease in later life.

We know that taste preferences are laid down in the early years, and that they will last a lifetime. When children develop a preference for salty foods early, it’s very difficult to change their tastes later. Something needs to be done.

Taking action

The solution? We must all take children’s nutrition more seriously. We are failing nearly half of our children before they even start formal education. We must all continue to put pressure on the food industry to make the necessary changes to their products, and consumers – including childcare providers – also have a responsibility to know how salty the food they serve is, and demand ingredients which help bring salt levels down.

The Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal is a voluntary scheme for the food industry and employers generally to encourage us all to eat better and live healthier lifestyles. Participants in the scheme commit to a variety of pledges. Some of the pledges are focused on nutrition. One focuses on salt – those who sign up to the salt pledge aim to reduce the salt in their food to a target level set by health experts.

Most retailers (supermarkets) have signed up to the salt pledge, as have a lot of the major food manufacturing brands. But only a few restaurant chains have committed to changing the salt levels in their food. This a concern: pub chains and fast food outlets which directly target families through children’s menus are not making enough moves to control how much salt is in the food they serve. There are claims from some manufacturers that altering recipes and product formulations is expensive. But very often salt can simply be removed and it doesn’t have to be replaced by another more expensive ingredient. Of course, salt has functions beyond taste in some foods – in bread, salt controls yeast activity; in foods like cheese and cured meats it acts as a natural preservative – but in a lot of other foods like sauces, stock cubes, breadcrumbs, snacks, cereals and biscuits, it is only present because our taste buds expect it.

What you can do

For adults and older children it’s a tall order to change taste preferences, but for the children in our settings, it’s easy to start them off correctly by removing additional salt in the first place. Most nurseries have a ‘no added’ salt policy, but many are unaware of the hidden salt in every day ingredients.

There are reduced salt and no added salt varieties of stock cubes, cereals, canned foods, but you will have to hunt them out, know what you’re looking for and sometimes pay a little more. Over half a million children are in full-time day care in the UK, so the demand for reduced- and low-salt foods is in your hands. These types of products will only become the norm and cheaper if you demand them.

The maximum healthy daily amount of salt children should consume is as follows:

Up to six months-old: less than 1g a day (0.4g sodium)
7–12 months: 1 g a day (0.4g sodium)
1–3 years: 2 g a day (0.8g sodium)
4–6 years: 3 g a day (1.2g sodium)
7–10 years: 5 g a day (2g sodium)
Over: 6 g a day (2.4g sodium)

Some foods and recipes are naturally high in salt and should be eaten with low-salt products. Be salt-aware when planning menus! The top five high-salt culprit foods are as follows:

1. Smoked, processed and cured meats
Meats such as ham, bacon, corned beef, frankfurters, sausage and tongue may be high in salt.

2. Fish
Pickled herring, anchovies, tuna and sardines all have a high salt content. Fresh and frozen fish always has a lower salt content. Tuna in spring water and in oil have a lower salt content than tuna in brine. Avoid smoked fish.

3. Meat extracts and stocks
Stocks are major ingredients in dishes such as soups, stews and risottos. A little stock cube contains a lot of salt. Many health food shops and supermarkets sell salt-free or reduced salt stocks or vegetable powders and extracts. Be adventurous and make your own stocks, or simply try to use more herbs and spices to flavour dishes.

4. Savoury snacks
The name says it all. Most crisps, including vegetable, potato, tortilla and corn crisps, as well as pretzels, salted nuts, popcorn and crackers are all salt bombs. Because these snacks are mostly eaten in addition to three meals per day, their high salt content really does have an impact. Many savoury snacks can now be found in an unsalted version. By popping your own popcorn, you have control over the salt content.

5. Pickles
Pickles are all preserved in a salt mixture. Rinse pickles like onions where possible to get rid of any excess salt water and use other pickles sparingly.

Many of these foods are also healthy foods and deserve to be on your menu. If you are planning a meal or food that has a naturally high salt content, simply balance it out with low-salt foods throughout the rest of the day. Finally, remember to always check the food label. Next time you go shopping, compare different foods. Look at the figure for salt per 100g:

● High is more than 1.5g salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)

● Low is 0.3g salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)


Butternut Squash and Red Pepper Soup

What you need: (10 servings)

● 1 tbsp (15g) sunflower oil

● 1 (150g) large onion, peeled and roughly chopped

● 2 (12g) cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

● 2 (60g) celery stalks, washed, trimmed and chopped

● 1 (100g) leek, trimmed and sliced

● 2 (320g) red peppers, deseeded and chopped

● 800g butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm chunks

● 1 tsp ground cumin

● Pinch of pepper

● 800ml vegetable stock, made from low-salt stock cubes

What you do:
In a large saucepan, heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic, celery and leek and soften for 5–10 minutes. Add the red pepper and butternut squash and stir well. Add the ground cumin and season with pepper and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Blitz the soup in a blender until smooth and serve with wholemeal rolls.

If butternut squash is difficult to obtain, you can replace with the same quantity of sweet potato (follow the same cooking order and times). Prepare extra butternut squash and leeks and make a puree for weaning diets

Nutrition analysis per serving

Energy
(kcals)
Protein
(g)
Fat
(g)
Carbs
(g)
Sugar
(g)
Salt
(g)
Iron
(g)
Calcium
(g)
156 6 3 29 0.02 0.3 1.8 92


Chicken Piri Piri with Rice

What you need: (10 servings)

● 4 (520g) boneless, skinless chicken breasts 2 tbsp (30ml) sunflower oil

● Pinch of dried mixed herbs

● 1 (100g) onion, peeled and chopped

● 50g unsaturated margarine 150g mushrooms

● 2x 400g can chopped tomatoes 1 tsp (6g) dried oregano

● 90g grated cheese

● 400g of long grain rice

● 400g of mixed frozen peas and sweetcorn

What you do:
Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F, Gas 4. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and sprinkle with mixed herbs. Place in an oven-proof dish, drizzle with a little oil and brown in the oven while you prepare the sauce. In a frying pan, heat the margarine, add the onion and soften for 5–10 minutes. Then add the mushrooms and cook for a further 3–4 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and the oregano and simmer for about 10 minutes. n Pour the tomato sauce over the chicken breasts, add the grated cheese and cook in the oven for 25–30 minutes. Cook the rice according to the instructions. 4 minutes from the end, add the peas and sweetcorn. Serve the chicken and sauce on a bed of rice.

Use previously prepared puree from the freezer for weaning diets For vegetarian diets, replace chicken breasts with Quorn fillets and use soya or vegetarian cheese. For dairy-free diets, use dairy-free cheese.

Nutrition analysis per serving

Energy
(kcals)
Protein
(g)
Fat
(g)
Carbs
(g)
Sugar
(g)
Salt
(g)
Iron
(g)
Calcium
(g)
287 23 13 22 0 0.4 1.5 106



Nigel Denby is a chef, a registered dietician and the founder of Grub4Life.

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