Pick Your Poison: Added Salt

Added Salt: The crystalline, less-than-sweet cousin of Added Sugar. It is generously dumped into the food supply and stealthily inhabits your grocery store shelves. Maybe you invite Added Salt over for a home-prepared meal from time to time, a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there. And the next thing you know, he’s showing up for meals habitually.

On the other hand, if you’re watching your salt intake, maybe salt is just a permanent table staple and its only purpose is to fill those “vintage” shakers you got from your mother-in-law. Either way, salt is a part of our lives. In fact, currently, there are about 14,000 known uses for salt! Salt is used for everything from road deicers to food preservation, which we’ve discussed in previous blogs. But should salt, or at least large quantities of it, have a welcome place in school foods too?

With summer ending and the school season right around the corner, Slurpees® are out and school lunch is in. But what should be in the school lunch? The jury is out on this and here’s why.

Political Past
Back in 2012, former first lady Michelle Obama sought to spearhead the fight against childhood obesity with her Let’s Move campaign. Children and adolescents spend a good portion of their day at school, yet, over the last 30 years, obesity rates have tripled for these age groups. So what better way to combat the issue than to tighten up school food? Well Mrs. Obama did just that. In conjunction with the USDA, she set out to improve the nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The new standards were aimed at incorporating more whole grains, while limiting calories, fat, salt, and sugar. And, with added salt flooding the system, it is perhaps one of the most ambitious of the undertakings.

Consider this: The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (1,500 mg for those at-risk of heart disease and high blood pressure), but most Americans eat well more than 3000 mg of sodium per day. Most of this isn’t even coming from the salt shaker!

Salt has long had a reputation for its link to high blood pressure, Current studies report that these findings are inconclusive; however, it is worth considering the following:
1. More than half of the added salt in our diets is from packaged food.
2. A good number of packaged foods, with large amounts of added salt, are low in nutrition.
3. Child obesity is reaching epidemic proportions and the link between obesity and high blood pressure is definitive.

Salty foods are rampant in school cafeterias, and high-sodium convenience foods such as pizza, french fries, and chicken tenders often earn high marks from students on palatability.
In the interest of student tastes, the intent was to phase out the amount of salt in school meals gradually. By progressively using healthier alternatives to high-salt foods, the salt allowance in schools in 2023 would be nearly half of the allowance pre-campaign. A significant number of schools in the United States have hopped on board with the new standards and have begun to revise their offerings to meet them.

Political Present
As 2017 rolled around and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs rolled into phase 2 of the sodium reduction effort, the political climate began to take a drastic shift. The combination of a new presidential leader advocating for deregulation, the increased financial constraints and rising tensions for school board directors, and the decreased school meal program participation began to cast a dark, and expensive, shadow of doubt on the implications of the new standards.

“The changes have resulted in more than a million students dropping out of the National School Lunch Program, and more than $1 billion in food waste.” -The Education Action Group Foundation (EAG)

Some schools who were initially in support of the initiative have become frustrated by the lack of availability of realistic substitutions, claiming that manufacturers are not making the necessary accommodations to keep up with the changes and/or are not formulating palatable alternatives that students will eat. Some students have been dropping out of the governmental meal program and administrators believe it may be due to the new, healthier choices.

When it comes to the availability of affordable low-sodium versions of high-salt foods, even the USDA has acknowledged a significant lag on the manufacturing end, making nutrition targets hard to reach.

“Reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified (in Targets 2 and 3) and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.” -The Institute of Medicine

In addition, schools are questioning the legitimacy of their role in sodium contribution, with the School Nutrition Association (SNA) arguing that children only receive about 26% of their daily sodium from school cafeterias (the rest being from store products and fast food). Schools already depend heavily on reimbursement to support their meal programs, and the inability to meet regulations that guarantee that reimbursement can be problematic.

The Result
As a result of the present struggles with the new nutrition standards and the current political atmosphere, phase two of school sodium reduction hasn’t exactly phased in. In fact, phase two of the salt reduction is as frozen as a box of dismissed low-sodium chicken tenders pushed to the back of the freezer. Current regulations now state that schools who have managed to reach the first target will be considered compliant until 2020, and schools who have not will have a chance to catch up. For perspective, the California Watch recently revealed that 4 out of 5 districts reviewed by the state were noncompliant with the current federal regulations on sodium. This means that while some schools have adapted the changes, most schools are currently in violation of the sodium standards. The SNA has expressed their appreciation for the freeze on the regulation, as they believe that it will grant them temporary relief from the burden of attempting to implement the even-stricter regulations which will provide them with more flexibility to provide meals that are more appealing.

However, health advocates aren’t so sure a freeze is the answer. In fact, reports have shown that, while some students may not like the healthier options, this might just be speculation or propaganda as there has always been a stigma surrounding the quality of school lunch. Also, the Center for Disease Control has noted that more students are eating fruits and vegetables than before due to increased efforts of schools to implement more fruits and vegetables, which are naturally low in salt and other nutrients that are consumed in excess. A freeze on the regulation may be good for biding time, but is biding time in the interest of the kids? The school? The food industry? Health advocates and health organizations have suggested that the answer isn’t waiting on manufacturers to change their products, but for schools to change their reliance on packaged food.

Is it better to provide a meal that a child will eat, even if it is less nutritious? Some food is better than no food, right? Is it better to nourish school-aged children and adolescents with healthier options and advocate for better marketing techniques and sourcing? Pick your poison.

The 8th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference

California Watch – School Lunches Missing the Mark of Nutrition Standards

The American Heart Association – Sodium Recommendations

Federal Standards for the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Program

Sodium Nutrition Standards 2012




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