As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and father of a 10-year-old daughter, Tobe says there's more reason than ever to worry about the rising level of hypertension in Canadian children.
"They're consuming way too much salt," Tobe says. And excessive salt is already responsible for an estimated one million hypertension cases in Canada.
It's not the family salt shaker that's the problem for kids: "Eighty per cent of the salt in our diets comes from fast foods and processed foods," he notes.
Some foods that don't sound particularly salty have more sodium per serving than potato chips. (See list below)
Even soft drinks and some flavoured bottled waters contain salt. It all contributes to the fact that most Canadian children consume more than the upper level of sodium that can be tolerated by their bodies without adverse health effects, says Health Canada.
It's a trend that worries Monique Gray Smith, a Victoria mother of five-year-old twins, who never puts the salt shaker on the kitchen table.
"I don't have time to read every package," she says, calling the salt levels in some foods aimed at kids "frightening."
She's concerned that overly salted foods create cravings that make healthy foods seem bland and cause thirsty kids to drink too much pop, fuelling childhood obesity.
Three-quarters of Canadian toddlers exceed upper tolerable limits for salt intake; so do more than 90 per cent of children aged four to eight. The vast majority of older children also consume too much salt, Tobe says.
"These children are at risk for developing hypertension at an earlier age," he says, adding that increased lifetime exposure to high blood pressure makes eventual heart attack, stroke or kidney disease more likely.
Parents need to know how much salt their kids are eating because the habits children develop now could last a lifetime, he says.
Meanwhile, kidney stones linked to excess salt are showing up in more kids in the U.S.: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia now treats five children a week for kidney stones, compared to 10 a year in 2005.
"It doesn't surprise me," Tobe says. "Increased sodium in the diet increases calcium in the urine through a complex process. One of the first things we tell people who are having calcium kidney stone problems is to cut back on their salt. Kids with kidney stones -- it shouldn't happen and seeing an increase like that is very alarming."
Budding brains can also be affected by high blood pressure. Such kids are four times more likely to have learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pediatric kidney specialist Marc Lande of University of Rochester Medical Center has also found such kids struggle with memory and goal-directed tasks, suggesting early signs of brain damage long before adult strokes.
"The first step toward reducing your child's blood pressure is to limit the salt in (their) diet," advises the American Academy of Pediatrics. Fortunately, giving up table salt, restricting salty foods and engaging in physical activity can reverse or reduce mild hypertension, it adds.
Canadian kids face an even saltier world: A recent study of fast foods and cereals by World Action on Salt and Health found some of the saltiest versions in Canadian products, including KFC's popcorn chicken, Burger King's onion rings and Kellogg's All Bran and Special K cereals.
"If parents are vigilant on behalf of their kids -- and they'll do anything for their kids -- they're going to learn how to [limit sodium intake] for themselves," Tobe says. "So I think it's a really great thing to focus on."
Concerned parents pressured food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats in recent years, and Tobe says parental buying power could curb excessive salt.
"That's what's given us hope," he says. "It's a very competitive market, so if parents start to change their buying behaviour, industry will follow suit very quickly."