Cereal bars for toddlers ranged from zero to 85 mg of sodium per serving. Fruit snacks for toddlers ranged from zero to 60 mg per serving.
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 leve
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