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Salt, Part 1

Heath dangers in Canadian children start with high levels of salt Add to ...

"It's almost negligent we haven't done something about this before," says Dr. Campbell, who was named the first Canadian Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control by a group including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in 2006.

Hypertension already costs the health-care system $430-million a year, and experts say that number will grow exponentially if something isn't done about the extraordinary amounts of sodium consumed by children across Canada.

ROCK OF AGES

Salt has been a cornerstone of human civilization for thousands of years, helping empires expand, cities prosper and leaders crush their rivals. Before the dawn of refrigeration, salting was the best way to preserve meat, making it one of the world's most valuable commodities.

Salt isn't necessary to preserve meat these days. But the modern reality of two-income families and hectic schedules means that few parents now use fresh ingredients exclusively or make all meals from scratch. Packaged snacks, canned food and pre-made or frozen meals loaded with salt are now a normal part of family life. And so is the appetite for candy and junk food loaded with salt, sugar and fat.

Unknown to many Canadians, that has allowed sodium to creep into our diets at astonishing levels.

Research suggests that salt is addictive, making it very difficult to reduce consumption. It seems no coincidence, then, that many food companies use it as an inexpensive way to enhance flavour. Not all high-sodium products taste like it, usually because salt is masked by other ingredients such as sugar, herbs or spices.

Kids demand French fries, pizza, chips, hot dogs and candy, and their exhausted, time-pressed or indulgent parents hand it over. They may try to limit it, but the reality is that many kids eat too much junk. That fact is largely responsible for the childhood-obesity epidemic that has sparked widespread demand for junk-food advertising bans and physical-education reform.

Yet the average Canadian is less aware of the beating that high amounts of salt can inflict on the body, making it harder for the heart to pump blood and demanding extra work from the kidneys.

And it's not just in junk food. Many foods promoted as healthy because they are low in fat, sugar and calories (such as canned vegetables and beans, lean cold cuts, whole-grain breads, fat-free salad dressings and ready-made soups) contain far more sodium than most people suspect.

Indeed, as the market for low-fat, calorie-wise and sugarless food products has exploded over the past few decades, the salt levels in many of these items have crept up, perhaps partly in compensation.

Studies have also found links between childhood obesity and high-sodium diets - children who eat more salt also drink more liquids, often turning to sugary pop and juice.

It's not yet clear how rampant hypertension is becoming among children. Family physicians often don't test for it, meaning that many children may have high blood pressure and not know it. In fact, it's estimated that almost half of adults with the condition are unaware of it.

As health problems common to adults begin to emerge more frequently in children, the medical community has also grappled to understand what constitutes a dangerous blood-pressure reading in a child, whose body is much different from an adult's.

Few people know why sodium should be a top priority on the public-health agenda better than Sheldon Tobe, a researcher in hypertension and kidney disease at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre who has spent the past few years as a spokesman on the subject for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. "Now is the time to really work on cutting back on salt in society," he insists.!

GETTING THE WORD OUT

But is anybody listening? For years, Canadians have heard that fat, sugar and high calories are the culprits in rising obesity and spikes in childhood diabetes. Unfortunately, the message was so well received that many parents consider only fat and sugar, not salt, before tossing a product in their shopping carts.

Now, as health advocates try to focus the same attention on sodium, parents are feeling unsure what is left to feed their kids that will not harm their health down the road.

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