The Power of Salt
Salt gives strength, vitality, and energy to power your baby’s body movement. Salt is so essential that it has been used throughout history as a valuable trading commodity and even as a currency for wages. In its whole form, salt has tremendous healing properties and nutritional benefits. When it is refined and stripped of its minerals, excess sodium is known for its relationship to health risks. There is a difference in the quality of refined salt and whole sea salt. The quantity of the salt you give your child can affect his physical, emotional, and mental health.
Babies and children are very sensitive to salt, and monitoring salt intake is one of the most powerful ways you can influence your child’s diet. Beyond its independent nutritional importance, the quality and amount of salt a child consumes determines his attraction to other foods. For example, eating salty foods makes him thirsty and creates a craving for sweets or fruits, and too much salt can cause irritability, insomnia, constipation, tension, and general discomfort.
Even though salt is necessary, it is a very challenging ingredient to manage in cooking and eating for your baby. Determining a balanced quantity can be difficult, considering salt’s addictive properties. Snack and restaurant foods have significantly higher levels of refined salt than home-cooked whole foods, so it is difficult to manage the amount of salt your baby consumes when eating out. Preparing meals at home allows you to regulate your baby’s salt intake and develop a stronger awareness of his physical and emotional responses to it.
The Power of Salt
Sodium is the compound that makes salt taste “salty.” Your baby’s body needs sodium to function properly, as it controls fluid balance, regulates his blood pressure and volume, supports the transmission of his nerve impulses, and influences the contraction and relaxation of his muscles. Salt helps your baby’s body maintain a healthy acid-alkaline balance, acts as a digestive agent, and soothes his joints. Sea salt’s high amounts of trace minerals also help his body heal through their response to cell damage and inflammation.
Certain salts can sharpen his brain functions and improve his mental clarity, as well. Despite the need for salt in carrying out bodily functions, too much salt can affect your baby in detrimental ways, including raising his blood pressure or compromising his kidney function. Your baby can become irritable and tense from excess salt. Salt can be addictive, too, creating a cyclical dependency on salty foods, which then cause cravings for sweets, and back again.
Once salt has been cooked into food, it is not visible, so it can be easy to underestimate the power of this concentrated substance. It is often hidden in unexpected places that can have an influence on your baby without your knowing it. Being aware of your baby’s sodium intake is one of the most difficult food ingredients to manage.
When you cook your own baby food, you know how much salt is in his food, and you can observe his condition and behavior and make adjustments of more or less to help him balance. When you offer him food that is prepared, you do not know how much sodium he is taking in, so his salt intake is more difficult to monitor. You can monitor your baby’s salt intake by observing his bowel movements.
Salt in School Lunches
The majority of sodium from food service meals comes from refined salts, and not the nutritious whole salts that children’s bodies need. In January of 2012, the USDA revised nutrition standards for school food programs and included new restrictions on sodium. They created a goal to reduce the amount of sodium in school meals by 50 percent over the next 10 years.
Processed and prepared foods
The vast majority of sodium in the average diet comes from foods that are processed, canned, frozen, and packaged. These foods include store-bought bread and packaged snacks and sweets, as well as condiments like soy sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, olives, and pickles. Ready-made meals like pizza, instant cereals, noodles, rice or potatoes, frozen dinners, and soups also contain high levels of sodium. If your baby eats processed and packaged foods or food served in restaurants often, he is probably consuming higher levels of sodium than he needs.
You can check the sodium per serving on the Nutrition Facts label when purchasing packaged foods. This label also lists whether the ingredients include salt or sodium compounds. When reading labels, you can calculate that a ¼ teaspoon of salt equals 600 milligrams of sodium. You may see products marketed as “sodium-free” or “reduced salt,” but these may still contain too much salt for your child.
The following are explanations of sodium marketing terminologies:
- Sodium-free or salt-free: Contains less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.
- Very low sodium: Contains 35 mg of sodium or less.
- Low sodium: Contains 140 mg of sodium or less.
- Reduced or less sodium: Contains at least 25 percent less sodium than market standards. (Compare these to other products in the same category.)
- Lite or light in sodium: Sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent from competing brands. (Compare these to others in the same category.)
- Unsalted or no salt added: No salt is added during the processing of a food that normally contains salt. (Some foods may still be high in sodium because of other ingredients.)
Salt in breast milk or formula
Everything a mother eats during breast-feeding affects her baby’s nutritional balance, and salt is no exception. Formula also contains salt, and trying out different formulas could have an effect on your baby’s sodium levels as well.
One way to monitor your baby’s daily salt intake is to check his bowel movements. For a breast-fed baby, a healthy bowel movement is golden brown or yellow and soft. Dark brown or hard stools may mean your breast milk or his formula is too salty. If his bowel movement is green, loose, and watery, you or your baby may be consuming too much fruit, juice, liquid, or oil, or not enough salt.
Types of Salt
Sodium is the main ingredient in refined table salt and sea salt, but there are differences in the methods of processing, their trace minerals, tastes, and effects on your baby’s body. The following list outlines the main sources of salt.
Table salt is mined from rocks in the earth and is 99.5 percent sodium chloride, with the addition of anti-caking chemicals, potassium iodine, and sugar to stabilize the iodine. Naturally occurring trace minerals are extracted during the high-heat refining process. The warnings against high levels of sodium consumption typically refer to this form of salt, which is most commonly found in processed and mass-produced foods. Refined salts lack minerals and have added chemicals. These factors make table salt an unhealthy seasoning for babies.
Naturally harvested sea salt has approximately 98 percent sodium content. Sea salt is evaporated from the ocean, where trace minerals are concentrated, rather than stripped out or diluted, as is the case with the refined rock salt. Some of these trace minerals include: chloride, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iodine. However, the iodine found in sea salt is significantly less compared to the added iodine in table salt.
The chloride component of sea salt activates amylase, which is needed to effectively digest carbohydrates. Minerals in sea salt boost your baby’s immune system and facilitate the functions of his liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands. Sea salt enhances the natural sweetness of grains, vegetables, and legumes, and it can stimulate your baby’s appetite. The USDA currently certifies plant- or animal-based foods as organic and does not offer a certification process for minerals, such as salt. Look for other countries’ organic certifications or companies that harvest salt using “organic compliant” methods.
Salt for Your Baby
Adding salt to everyday cooking is not necessary until after your baby is one year old. Before then, he spends most of his time sitting or lying down and his body cannot process it. Once he becomes physically active, he can expel salt through perspiration. Cooking with oil, flour, and large quantities of water may need a small amount of salt for balance. Fermented foods, such as tamari, plum vinegar, miso, and pickles, contain sodium that is easier to assimilate than sea salt, so you can introduce very small amounts of these foods earlier, around seven to nine months.
However, they are salty, so take care and pay attention to your baby’s reaction. At one to two years, your child can start eating the same food as the rest of the family, with less salty seasoning. You can prepare food with a pinch or 1/8 teaspoon of salt, take out a portion for your child, and then add extra salt and seasonings for other family members. As an alternative to salt, you can add a small, one-inch piece of wakame or kombu for digestion support and added flavor. After age two, your toddler can eat almost all of the same foods as adults. The more salt your child has, the more likely he will crave fats and sugars. Although fats and sugars are important for healthy growth and development, too much salt may cause strong cravings.
Salt metabolizes more easily when it is cooked into food rather than added after cooking. The season or temperature also affects your baby’s salt needs. In colder weather, salt is necessary for creating body heat; conversely, less salt is required on a hot day. Each child is different, so discovery through trial and error and paying attention to his responses are the keys to helping him make balance.