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Home » Salt ’n’ sugar: Your kid’s worst enemy in school, and at home

Salt ’n’ sugar: Your kid’s worst enemy in school, and at home

by Meenakshi Arora
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Salt ’n’ sugar: Your kid’s worst enemy in school, at home
Ultra-processed and packaged foods are increasing in our diet. They are laden with sodium and sugar. Understanding the twin dangers and cutting back is the key to staying healthy.

From the US to India, ultra-processed foods, including industrially produced snack packs, fruit-flavored drinks, and hot dogs, have been linked to health issues ranging from weight gain to certain cancers. So where are the food policies helping people to steer clear of these foods?

The weak standards that govern federally subsidized school lunches illustrate the power of the food industry in Congress and the outsize influence of food companies on the School Nutrition Association, which represents 50,000 school lunch personnel, according to The Washington Post. 

While many nations have moved toward more nutritious school meals and stricter advertising standards, pizza sauce and French fries still count as vegetables for schoolchildren in the United States, and food companies remain virtually free to advertise to youngsters the way they like.

“Check the sodium on food labels. Choosing less is best,” reads the first line on New York State’s Department of Health website.

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that only a small number of US policies look at ultra-processed foods, lagging Belgium, Brazil, and Israel. 

“In some countries, ultra-processed foods have been directly integrated into national dietary guidelines and school food programs, but in the US, few policies directly target ultra-processed foods,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, associate professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the first author of the study.

After decades of focusing on single nutrients such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates in nutrition science and food policy, a growing body of evidence shows that there is more to dietary quality than nutrients.

“It’s clear that the extent of processing of food can influence its health effects, independent of its food ingredients or nutrient contents. Ultra-processed foods generally contain ‘acellular nutrients’—nutrients lacking any of the natural intact food structure of the source ingredient—and other industrial ingredients and additives that together can increase risk of weight gain, diabetes, and other chronic diseases,” said study co-author Dariush Mozaffarian, the Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.


After decades of focusing on single nutrients such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates in nutrition science and food policy, the understanding now is that the extent of processing of food can influence its health effects, independent of its food ingredients or nutrient contents.

Salt, sugar and kids

A recent report by Indian nutrition think tank Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), showed that regularly used packaged products such as chips, cookies, sweets, soft beverages, instant noodles, sugary cereals, frozen meals, ice cream, bakery items, and chocolates have salt, sugar and fat at higher-than-recommended levels.

This has increased the “incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol levels in the younger population, and these lifestyle factors lead to further complications for heart health issues in kids,” according to Dr. Ashwani Mehta, Cardiologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi.

“Dietary habits have shifted towards processed and unhealthy foods, loaded with sugars and fats. This, combined with a decrease in physical activity due to more sedentary lifestyles, is a significant contributor,” he told A Lotus in the Mud.

Only a few countries around the world directly regulate ultra-processed foods, but those that do have limited their consumption in schools and recommend eating less ultra-processed food. 

The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which inform the country’s food and nutrition policies, do not currently mention ultra-processed food. However, the scientific advisory committee for the 2025-2030 US Dietary Guidelines has been tasked with evaluating research related to ultra-processed food consumption as it relates to weight gain. 

Advertisements are the fuel

Advertisements should be banned for unhealthy food products, as it is increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods, which, in turn, is driving a surge in noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease, in India, according to experts.

Dr Arun Gupta, senior pediatrician, and Convener of Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), told Lotus there is enough evidence in the world, particularly in the past five years, which shows the increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods products is linked to higher mortality, diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer, depression, and kidney disease.

About 60 percent of deaths in India are caused by NCDs and the sharp rise has been seen in the past 20 years. The country is also seeing a 25 percent increase in obesity rates in the past five years, both in men and women.

“I think only healthy foods should be allowed to advertise, not the unhealthy ones,” Dr Gupta said.


To cut down on salt, stop adding raw salt to salads, meals, and raita. Fast foods like processed foods, canned and dried soup, baked goods, etc. have high salt content and should be avoided or consumed in a controlled way.

Salt: the necessary evil

Here are some of the facts about salt intake:

When there is a shortage of sodium: In case of a shortage of sodium in the body, a host of chemical and hormonal messages sends signals to the kidneys and sweat glands to hold onto the water and conserve the sodium. Salt deficiency can lead to shock with a sudden decrease in blood pressure which can affect our heart health.

When there is excessive sodium: Kidneys generally flush out the excess sodium by making more or saltier urine. But excessive salt in the body leads to water retention which can lead to edema. More fluid in the body also means more blood moving through veins and arteries.

• To be healthy: This does not mean that you have bland or tasteless food, rather maintaining the right balance is the key. Stop adding raw salt to salads, meals, and (yoghurt-based) raita. Fast foods like processed foods, canned and dried soup, baked goods, etc. have high salt content and should be avoided or consumed in a controlled way.

Sugar: the sinful temptation

Sugar intake is also one of the major reasons for weight gain. Sugar’s diverse effects on the body include:

Calories consumption: Consuming about 10-20% of calories or more in the form of sugar can act as a major problem and can cause nutrient deficiencies.

Eating large amounts of sugar: Regular consumption of large amounts of sugar can lead to some serious problems like fatty liver, joint pain (as sugar can lead to inflammation in the body), kidney damage and weight gain.

Snacking on candies or cookies: Having a candy, cookie, or sugary snack occasionally can give a quick boost of energy (or sugar rush) by raising your blood sugar levels fast. But, once the sugar levels drop, the cells absorb the sugar which can cause anxiety. High intake of sugar can lead to depression in adults.

Sugar pic

Regular consumption of large amounts of sugar can lead to serious problems like fatty liver, joint pain (caused by inflammation), kidney damage, and weight gain.

How to cut back on sugar and salt

Go slow: According to Harvard Health, give your taste buds time to adjust. If you are in the habit of having two spoons of sugar in your coffee or tea, for instance, start by going to one-and-a-half for a week, then down to one. If sodas are part of your routine, cut your consumption by one a week, then two.

Adapt your recipes. You can make your favorite recipes less sugary by reducing a little bit at a time—try using one-quarter less sugar than the recipe calls for, then one-third—right up until you notice the difference. You may come to prefer the less-sweet variation.

Reach for fruit rather than juice. Squeezing fruit breaks down the cells and releases sugar into the juice, so that it enters the bloodstream more rapidly. Moreover, a glass of juice is usually the caloric equivalent of three whole fruits. Instead of drinking fruit juice, eat a piece of fresh fruit. You can make fruit drinkable and still preserve its fiber by blending it with almond milk or low-fat yogurt in a smoothie. If you just can’t give up juice, make it 100% fruit juice that is not sweetened and limit the amount to a 4-ounce glass.

Check your cereal box. If you enjoy cold cereal or instant oatmeal for breakfast, look at the labels and choose one with minimal added sugar. It’s also worth noting that cereals made with refined grains are quickly broken down into sugars in the body. To wean yourself off your favorite cereal, try combining it with a whole-grain, high-fiber cereal, and add fruit.

What about salt?

According to Harvard Health, even if you ban salt from your table, it is still easy to exceed the sodium limit. To avoid doing so, try the following:

Eat mostly fresh foods. Most of the sodium we consume comes from restaurant meals and processed foods, including canned vegetables and soups, pasta sauces, frozen entrées, lunch meats, and snack foods. If you start with unsalted, fresh foods and prepare them yourself, you can exercise better control over your sodium intake.

Be careful with condiments. Sodium is found in many condiments besides ordinary table salt—including soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salad dressings, ketchup, seasoned salts, pickles, and olives. Baking soda, baking powder, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) also contain sodium.

Read the labels. The Nutrition Facts label on packaged food lists milligrams of sodium per serving, so it’s important to note how many servings the container holds. The percentage daily value is based on 2,300 mg, so if your daily sodium limit is lower, the amount of sodium in a serving is a higher percentage than the label indicates. Be aware that some over-the-counter drugs also contain sodium.

Speak up. When dining out, ask to have your food prepared with less salt. You can also ask for a lemon or lime wedge to add more flavor to your food.

Spice it up. Cut back on salt by using more herbs and spices like basil, coriander, cumin, cayenne, powdered mustard, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and turmeric. You might try making your blends of spices and herbs to use along with lemon or lime juice or flavored vinegar.

Photos: Freepik

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