Americans just love salt, but health experts fear it and food makers are caught in the middle.  

Today more than ever, companies are under pressure to reduce sodium, but Americans love the salty taste in foods. And large food producers face mounting calls from health advocates, retailers and even First Lady Michelle Obama to reduce sodium in the processed foods that account for the vast majority of salt intake.

One of the problems is that many Americans are so wary that “low salt” will really mean “less flavor,” therefore some marketers hesitate to even tell consumers when a reduction in salt has been made. A lot of consumers don’t want to trade taste for less sodium, says Jane Anders, vice president of research and development with Omaha-based ConAgra, which produces food brands such as Healthy Choice, Banquet and Slim Jim. “So the challenge is, how do we get the same great taste or an equally (good) taste with lower sodium?”

Taste isn’t the only reason major food makers say reducing sodium in prepackaged foods is so difficult. Sodium has become a key ingredient in bread, cheese, frozen dinners, lunch meats and many other foods because it’s extremely inexpensive and good at enhancing and masking flavors. It also plays an important role in the food production process, contributing to giving breads their yummy texture. Too much sodium, however, can lead to high blood pressure and to an increased risk of heart disease, strokes and other ailments.

However, most Americans don’t seem too concerned about salt. About four in 10 say they regularly watch their sodium intake, states a survey from last year by research firm HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla. Even fewer actively avoid high-sodium food items such as frozen meals and salty snacks, according to the survey.

What to do? Food processors such as ConAgra, Kraft, General Mills and Campbell’s have said that they are dedicated to reducing sodium in their product lines. Earlier this year, Walmart encouraged producers to do so by setting a goal of reducing sodium in many categories of packaged food by 25% by 2015, as part of a broader health initiative.