The American diet is tantamount to a salt lick. The average person in the United States consumes a whopping 3,436 milligrams of sodium daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Of course, everyone needs some amount of the mineral, which helps the body balance fluids and maintain proper nerve and muscle function. We just don’t need that much of it—the National Academy of Sciences recommends just 1,500 milligrams per day. Get more than that and the kidneys may not be able to eliminate it, causing sodium to build up in the blood. “Because sodium attracts and holds water, blood volume increases, which forces the heart to work harder to move the extra volume through the blood vessels, thus increasing pressure in the arteries,” says Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. In turn, high blood pressure bumps up stroke and heart-attack risk. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that Americans not exceed 2,300 milligrams of sodium daily, about the amount in a teaspoon of table salt. Not very much when you consider that one package of prepared macaroni and cheese contains 2,123 milligrams. (For a breakdown of sodium levels in common foods, see “The Salt Assault,” left.)

About three-quarters of the sodium in the U.S. diet arrives via restaurant grub and packaged edibles, in which it’s used to balance sweetness, boost flavor and extend shelf life by inhibiting microorganisms, says Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine in Orono. Reduced-fat products can pack even bigger punches because salt, in the form of sodium chloride, is used to mask bitter or undesirable flavors in the absence of taste bud–blocking fat. But as America’s 80 million baby boomers grow savvy to salt’s detriments, the demand for reduced-sodium products is amplifying.

“Boomers will be actively cutting down to reduce risk of high blood pressure, stroke and dementia,” says Katz. Furthermore, the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., is asking the government to change salt’s regulatory status from “generally recognized as safe” to “food additive.” What does that mean for naturals? Food companies that reformulate and slash sodium levels may have a competitive edge, prompting others to follow suit. Already, some manufacturers have voluntarily been shaking the salt from their consumables by substituting it with common alternatives such as potassium chloride—with mixed reactions.

“We had customers tell us they preferred our low-salt chip, introduced last year, because they could taste the potato and not just salt,” says Steve Sklar, senior vice president of marketing for Boulder Canyon Natural Foods, a snack-food company based in Boulder, Colo. Conversely, Nature’s Path Organic Foods 8 Grain Synergy Flakes is completely sodium free but also one of the Canadian company’s worst-performing cereals, according to Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing and communications. One thing is certain: Salt is still a big factor in consumers’ purchasing decisions.

“It’s a struggle to find a balance between cutting sodium and maintaining the flavor profile, which can be ruined by the ‘off’ [metallic and bitter] flavors of most salt substitutes,” Sklar says. To that end, many millions of research dollars are being spent to find adequate, proprietary salt substitutions. There may be a simple solution: A study published in the Journal of Food Science in May showed that adding vinegar to food mimics saltiness enough so that manufacturers, in theory, may be able to use the seasoning in place of salt or a salt alternative.

In the meantime, lower-sodium formulations may include flavorings from suppliers such as Ocean’s Flavor, a San Diego–based company that offers all-natural sea salt blended with potassium chloride. The company says that when used in packaged goods, the combo results in a product with 57 percent to 70 percent less sodium than those with sodium chloride alone. Even Minnesota-based agricultural giant Cargill is on board. Its SaltWise “system,” a combination of ingredients tailored to specific manufacturer needs, offers salt-taste parity for food products. Cargill claims products such as soups and frozen goods that contain SaltWise have 25 percent to 50 percent less sodium.

Retailers should play a larger role in customers’ health, says Ashley Koff, a Los Angeles-based dietitian. She suggests that store managers offer printed materials with information about sodium’s health implications and tips for making low- and no-salt choices in the store.

She also notes that because the electrolyte potassium helps counteract some of sodium’s blood-pressure impact by helping with cellular hydration, customers should bulk up on potassium-rich fruits (bananas, oranges, prunes) and vegetables (potatoes, artichokes, lima beans) to meet the 4,700-milligram dietary reference intake for potassium. Other tips for consumers include using sodium-free spices and herbs, splashing condiments such as balsamic vinegar onto foods and cooking from scratch to avoid salt-laced restaurant fare. A Canadian-based dietitian and nutrition writer, Matthew Kadey is reconsidering the extra sprinkle of salt on his sweet-potato fries.