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We Must Protect Our Kids: A Guest Post from the Past AHA President

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As the past president for the American Heart Association and an expert in cardiovascular medicine, I fully appreciate the importance of starting our kids off toward a heart-healthy life. However, I am very concerned that our kids' health is not everyone's top priority.

In an interview - the Salt Institute continued its efforts to undermine federal sodium standards in school foods with the claim that: “there is absolutely no scientific basis for any population-wide sodium reduction strategy... Studies show, left to ourselves, we will naturally seek out the safe range.” From a business perspective, I can hardly fault the Salt Institute for doing its job — trying to persuade Americans to eat more salt. The Salt Institute, after all, represents the salt industry. But I can fault the Institute for a misleading effort aiming to convince you that eating more sodium is a healthy choice. And I can find serious fault with the Institute’s assertion that our kids should be allowed to eat as much sodium as they feel like with the statement “studies show, left to ourselves, we will naturally seek out the safe range.”

This is a dangerous and deadly road to take with our children – our most precious resource.
The Salt Institute would have you believe that kids are like professional athletes who may need high levels of sodium each day to replenish their bodies. While many 7-year-olds may dream of being professional athletes, it is of course statistically unlikely they ever will be. And, until that small number of kids actually does reach the big leagues, we should feed them all like the growing kids they really are.

This is not an unusual approach from the Salt Institute. This organization found a small subset of studies it agrees with and is using them to try to discredit decades of research, going against the expertise of hundreds of doctors and scientists. However, significant methodological limitations in this small subset of studies embraced by the Institute have produced questionable results. We must not let this campaign of misinformation and disingenuousness harm our children. The health of our children is too serious for such a game.

The extensive science on sodium is clear: The high levels of sodium we currently consume do in fact impact blood pressure – a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

This is a conclusion shared by the American Heart Association, numerous government agencies, and a number of major national and international scientific and public health organizations.. Well-respected researchers and organizations have put forth public health recommendations on dietary sodium after extensive research and after weighing all of the evidence, including studies of greater and lesser design, and some with conflicting results.

This much is very clear: children need to reduce sodium intake.
Factors contributing to higher blood pressure, heart disease and stroke begin in childhood. Children who eat high-sodium diets are more likely to have elevated blood pressure. Unfortunately, the Salt Institute is part of ongoing efforts to weaken nutrition standards for school meals, with a focus on eliminating the moderate sodium levels that are scheduled to gradually be reduced, according to the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. On a day when a child consumes a school meal, 26 percent of that child’s sodium intake comes from that meal. So school meals present an opportunity to improve children’s health by lowering sodium intake – and schools are already taking advantage of it.

Schools have been encouraged to lower sodium since 1995.
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act established standards for school meals. These standards are aligned with nutrition science, children’s health issues, and the current needs of America’s schools. Some schools have already achieved the 2017-2018 sodium levels, and even more are on their way. There are plenty of products out there that meet the 2017-2018 targets, and more and more food companies continue to reformulate their offerings to meet schools’ needs – in fact, there are already tasty, kid-friendly products out there that already meet the ultimate sodium targets. Companies are taking action, and consumers want to see a change. Why would we halt this progress and the well-being of our kids?

This is more than a question of just science; it's a question of reason.

Does anyone truly think our kids need more salt? Does anyone truly think hiding additional sodium in kids’ breakfast and lunch is what’s best for them?

Any meaningful strategy to reduce sodium must involve all of our society.
Sodium must be reduced in foods offered in all environments — schools, restaurants, grocery aisle. The American Heart Association is working hard to ensure the healthy choice is the easy choice. Meanwhile, we must not stand by while efforts are made to roll back sodium standards in school meals.

Facts are stubborn things, as the saying goes. I hope they will win out as this debate continues and that we all take the Salt Institute position “with a grain of salt.”

For more information about school lunches, visit heart.org/schoolmeals.

Read Dr. Antman's bio.Dr. Elliott Antman headshot