We all know salt is bad for you: it contributes to high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart disease. What is striking is how much better our collective health would be if sodium consumption were reduced, even just a little.

Investigators used computer simulations and mathematical models to estimate the effects of gradually reducing salt intake by tiny amounts over ten years. If each person in the United States cut their daily salt consumption by a little less than a sixteenth of a teaspoon every year for ten years, sodium consumption would be reduced by 40 percent to about 2,200 mg/day, Pamela Coxson, a mathematics specialist in the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco told TheDoctor.

Coxson, lead author of the new study looking at the effects of reduced sodium consumption on mortality, says this steady reduction in salt consumption is projected to save between 280,000 and 500,000 lives. In addition, about 60 percent more deaths could be prevented during this time if these same reductions could be achieved more quickly (500,000 to 850,000 lives).

If you add salt to the food that you prepare from scratch, you will never add as much salt as you would find in processed foods.

It is pretty easy to reduce salt by this small amount. The best thing people can do is eat less processed food, which contains as much as 80 percent of the salt found in the American diet. "If you add salt to the food that you prepare from scratch, you will never add as much salt as you would find in processed foods," Coxson says.

And read labels. Condiments are very high in salt. In Asia, they have a huge problem with Hemorraghic Stroke because of soy sauce. When you go to the grocery store, you will find different formulations of the same food with widely varying sodium content; shoppers can pick, for example, the soup or ketchup that is lower in salt. "I also always use sweet butter that has no salt added," says Coxson.

Sodium is added to processed food to extend its shelf life, add flavor, and make it look more appealing (such as when salt is added to chicken because it makes it plump up and seem juicier). Countries that have made a big effort to reduce the sodium content of foods have used a combination of voluntary and legislatively-imposed restrictions; such efforts have met with success, according to Coxson. Different countries have taken different approaches.

Portugal focused on reducing the amount of sodium found in bread. Since bread is the number one source of sodium in the American diet, reducing the sodium content of bread and bread products would have a big impact here as well. In Argentina, regulators are working with food manufacturers to reduce the sodium content of many different classes of foods, such as bread products, canned goods, and meat. And the U.K. has a big campaign to label food products.

The American Heart Association suggests consuming less than 1,500 mg of sodium daily. The organization has asked the Food and Drug Administration to lower the recommended daily allowance for sodium and set limits on the amount of sodium foods can contain. "[S]odium reduction is beneficial to people at all ages," Coxson says. "Even small, gradual reductions in sodium intake would result in substantial mortality benefits across the population."

The study was recently published online in the journal, Hypertension.