On average, Americans consume about 3,500 milligrams of sodium a day. That's more than twice the 1,500 mg maximum recommended for people 40 and older, African-Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure—groups that together represent about 70 percent of adults in the U.S. It's even well above the maximum recommended for everyone else: 2,300 mg, the amount in about 1 teaspoon of salt.
Some sodium is needed to help regulate fluids, transmit nerve impulses, and contract muscles, but too much can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart attacks and especially strokes. Excess sodium may also boost the risk of asthma, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and stomach cancer.
Little of the sodium we consume arrives via salt shakers. About 75 percent comes from restaurant foods or processed foods, where it enhances flavor, stabilizes ingredients, or acts as a preservative. But the marketplace may be changing: Lower-sodium foods and drinks are a major food trend for 2010, according to market-research publisher Packaged Facts, and several food companies have already started to cut sodium from some products.
Kraft, for example, announced its intention to reduce sodium in its North American line by an average of 10 percent over the next two years. And Heinz has announced that it will introduce its first recipe change in almost 40 years, lowering its ketchup's sodium from 190 mg per serving to 160 mg.