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Children's Health

Ready-to-Eat Foods for Toddlers Often Too Salty

Parents urged to balance convenience with healthier meals, snacks
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Maalouf declined to name products by brand. "The main purpose of the study was to look at food categories, not compare brands," she said. "Even within the same brand, we had a wide variation of sodium."

Still, prepackaged macaroni and cheese, cheese and crackers, pasta and chicken, pepperoni pizza and chicken noodle soup typically have high sodium levels, Maalouf added.

The message for parents, Maalouf said, is to read nutrition labels and choose lower-sodium items.

The findings are no surprise to Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic's department of preventive cardiology. Foods prepackaged for infants tend to be lower in sodium, as they contain just one or two ingredients, often vegetable- or fruit-based, and servings are smaller than those for toddlers.

The popularity of convenience foods -- which she defines as "anything in a box, bag, frozen container or can" -- has climbed along with the rise in two-income families, she said. Working parents turn to these meals because of time constraints.

To cut down on sodium, she suggested balancing a prepackaged, high-sodium lunch with a healthier, lower-sodium dinner. For snacks, pick fruit, such as an apple, over packaged cheese and crackers. "It's no less convenient," she said.

Her guideline for maximum sodium is stricter than that used for the study. "A single food, such as a slice of bead, a serving of cheese, a salad dressing, should be under 140 milligrams," she said.

Parents can also teach their kids that prepackaged meals and snacks should be enjoyed occasionally but not everyday, she said.

In response to the study finding, Gerber, which makes ready-to-eat baby and toddler foods, said in a statement that it is "proactively reducing sodium levels in our toddler meal options while maintaining the great taste that mothers and children expect."

In 2011, the company said it reduced sodium in some toddler meals as much as 30 percent. By 2013, it expects to reformulate 80 percent of its toddler meals to have less sodium, according to the statement.

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