Gerber, one of the best-known names in baby food, has been named this year's recipient of the "Salt Lick Award" due to the high sodium content in one of its prepared meals for toddlers.
The Canadian Stroke Network and the Advanced Foods & Materials Network chose Gerber Graduates Lil' Entrees because the product line's Chicken & Pasta Wheel Pickups dinner contains 550 milligrams of sodium — more than half a toddler's adequate daily intake of 1,000 mg.
The organizations say the amount of sodium in the prepared food is equivalent to that contained in two medium orders of McDonald's french fries. The McDonald's Canada website says a medium order of fries contains 270 mg of sodium.
Yet labelling on the Gerber Graduates meal says it is "appropriate for children one year or older" and is "specially made for toddlers." Two other Gerber meals for toddlers also received dishonourable mentions for high salt content.
"There is a concern that eating too much sodium in childhood can lead to a preference for salty foods and, consequently, an increased risk of disease as an adult," Dr. Kevin Willis — who leads efforts by the Canadian Stroke Network to raise awareness of the dangers of excessive sodium intake — said in a release.
A high-sodium diet increases blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke, heart and kidney disease, and dementia. Too much dietary salt has also been linked to osteoporosis, asthma, stomach cancer and obesity.
Label overstates sodium
A spokesman for Nestle, which owns Gerber, said reducing sodium "to an acceptable level" in the brand's six toddler meals is a key priority.
"Current packages of Gerber 'Lil Entrees overstate the sodium level as they include the sodium contained in the brine [liquid] surrounding the vegetables, which is not consumed," Dr. Andrea Papamandjaris, head of Nestle's medical and scientific unit, said Tuesday in an emailed statement. "The package includes instructions to drain the brine before serving."
The brine accounts for 19 to 33 per cent of the sodium, depending on the recipe, said Papamandjaris, noting that new packaging showing sodium levels only for the consumed food will be on store shelves in July.
Health Canada's Sodium Working Group, appointed in 2007, is developing a salt-reduction strategy for Canadians, which will include voluntary reductions of sodium in processed foods.
But the Stroke and Advanced Foods networks say some industry officials have responded to calls for less sodium by saying such cuts are difficult because Canadians have a taste for salty foods.
Higher standards expected
The two networks suggest that craving for salt is likely programmed early in life — in part by the food industry itself.
"One-year-olds do not demand salt in their food," said Dr. Charlene Elliott of the University of Calgary, who is studying the marketing of children's food.
Food companies are "totally playing into adult conceptions of a meal," said Elliott, adding that unfortunately "there is a presumed halo effect around baby and toddler foods because people expect these foods to be held to higher standards."
The two networks, which studied the ingredients in popular baby and toddler foods to determine salt content, found some popular brands have no added sodium.
The list of toddler meals considered to have excessive sodium includes:
- Gerber Graduates for Toddlers Lil' Entrees, Macaroni and cheese with peas and carrots: 520 mg per serving.
- Parent's Choice (Wal-Mart brand) My Little Meals, Shells & Cheese with Frankfurters: 520 mg per serving.
- Gerber Graduates for Toddlers Lil' Entrees, Cheese Ravioli in Tomato Sauce with carrots, peas and corn: 480 mg per serving.
- Heinz Toddler Vegetables, Beef & Pasta Casserole: 470 mg per jar.
- Heinz Toddler Beef Stroganoff: 420 mg per jar.