Analysis

School Children Get Too Much Sodium

Traditional cafeteria foods are big sources of children’s salt intake

More than 90 percent of school-age children in the United States consume more sodium each day than current dietary guidelines recommend, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

CDC finds that U.S. children ages 6 to 18 consume an average of about 3,300 milligrams of sodium a day. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children’s daily intake of sodium be less than 2,300 milligrams. Consuming too much sodium increases the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease—costly medical conditions that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. 

Schools can help students avoid excess sodium by serving meals and snacks low in salt, CDC experts conclude. Their study found that children consumed 43 percent of their sodium from just 10 common foods, including pizza, chicken nuggets, cold cuts, and other items traditionally found on school menus. 

Updated school meal nutrition standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in the 2012-13 school year call for the gradual reduction of salt content over 10 years. 

Similar sodium limits for food and drinks sold in vending machines, a la carte lines, and school stores were put in place for the 2014-15 school year under USDA’s Smart Snacks in Schools standards. A child who eats a slice of pepperoni pizza that meets these standards instead of a typical piece would reduce his or her salt intake by 160 milligrams, CDC reports. 

“CDC’s findings make it even more clear that strong school nutrition standards are vital to supporting children’s good health,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. “Schools across the country have worked creatively to find more nutritious versions of these traditional foods that are lower in salt and fat.” 

A recent poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the American Heart Association found that 75 percent of parents believe that salt should be limited in school meals. 

Kids consume up to half their daily calories in school, where they spend more time than any other place except for their homes. Research shows that the taste for salt is established at a young age, so lowering children’s sodium intake at school is an effective approach to instilling healthier eating habits for life. 

Learn more about children’s sodium intake and parental opinions of school nutrition standards.