Junkfood Science: Leaving kids a bad taste for science

November 12, 2008

Leaving kids a bad taste for science

Even science articles for elementary school children have become venues for scaring them about their food and health and spreading pop myths about good-bad foods, rather than offering opportunities to teach science and make science and food fun. This week it was about salt.

In the current issue of Science News for kids, young readers were told that they’re eating more salt than they realize. They were cautioned that they can’t see or taste it and salt is hidden in foods, especially foods they eat in restaurants and processed foods. Young readers were told that doctors are warning that salt is bad for kids because it’s hurting their hearts, kidneys and waistlines. Kids then read about all of the bad things that salt is supposed to do to them. Salt makes their hearts work harder and causes heart attacks and high blood pressure, they read. They were told that salt also causes kidney stones. "This painful condition used to mostly affect people in their 40s and older. Now, kids as young as 5 are getting it," especially when they don’t drink enough water. Salty foods and sodas also make kids fat, they read.

“The bottom line is that high sodium levels are definitely bad for you,” said the dietician. Kids read that it’s never too early to start worrying about heart disease and about how much salt they eat, now. A professor was quoted saying that kids should eat less salt because bodies only really need 500 mg and most everyone eats double what they should.

These young children were advised to start reading labels and see how much salt is in fast foods and frozen foods, avoid foods from cans or bottles, and go easy on condiments. One of their assignments was to: "Tally your intake of salt for two days. On the first day, eat normally (but look at how much sodium is in each food that makes it into your mouth). On the second day, try to keep salt (sodium) levels low."

[For background information for new readers that counters these pop fears, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here to get started.]

Sadly, youngsters didn't learn that science is their friend and lots of fun, and that they don't need to be afraid of scary things hidden in their food or worry about getting diseases of old people. The science news for kids was, in fact, contrary to the science. The Dietary Guidelines don’t even suggest restricting salt for children.

Young science readers then heard about this amazing study that found that if they eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and only tiny amounts of red meat, sweets and fatty junk food, their blood pressure would go down a lot. That’s not true, either, of course. “In one recent study, researchers from the United Kingdom analyzed 10 trials involving nearly 1,000 kids. The trial results showed that lowering sodium intake by 40 to 50 percent led to a significant decrease in blood pressure, even in infants,” the article said. [This study was reviewed here two years ago. The “significant decrease in blood pressures” being claimed after children cut salt intakes to levels prescribed for elderly in heart failure, by the way, was a mere one point (1mmHg), with no evidence to support beliefs that it was healthful for growing children or had anything to do with their adult blood pressures or heart disease.]

Children deserve sound science, too. Making the world a scary place for them... that, they don't deserve.

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