May 11, 2009 -- Salt: It's the not-so-secret ingredient in tasty treats like chicken fingers, onion rings and tomato juice.
But today one group advocating healthy eating says that at some chain restaurants, we may be getting nearly four times the amount of salt we need in a day in one single sitting.
"If the meal was high in fat, it was high in salt. If it was low in fat, it was low in salt. Salt city at restaurants," Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest told ABC News.
CSPI released a report this morning detailing which restaurants are the worst offenders when it comes to meals packed with sodium.
Watch "World News with Charles Gibson" TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full report.
Instead of eating those meals, some suggest steering clear of salty foods and choosing healthier alternatives when eating out, cooking at home and even opting for drive-through where portions are smaller.
U.S. dietary guidelines recommend healthy adults get a maximum daily dose of about 2,300 mg of salt. But some of the meals on CSPI's list had more than 6,000 mg. With large portion sizes, sit-down restaurants like Red Lobster, Chili's and Olive Garden can be more of a problem than fast food.
Doctors like Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, worry because too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure, potentially leading to heart attack and stroke.
But salt is an inexpensive flavor enhancer that your taste buds quickly get used to and crave -- and it can be tricky to monitor how much you're consuming, Ayoob said.
Two cases in point: An otherwise healthy stir-fry can be loaded with salt and so can broth-based soups.
"It's not something like fat where you can kind of see a greasy food and you know it's there," Ayoob told ABC News.
That's one reason restaurants that made the list say they work hard to keep customers informed and offer healthy choices.
Red Lobster, for instance, posts nutritional content for all of its meals on its Web site, redlobster.com, and in its restaurants. An online calculator also lets customers add up what they're consuming in a full meal and swap in healthier alternatives.
"Red Lobster offers many options for those watching their sodium intake, including up to eight species of fresh fish in each restaurant and a Lighthouse menu with selections less than 500 calories and 750mg of sodium," Red Lobster's communications director Mark Jaronski said in a statement.
Chili's, too, publicizes nutrition information including sodium content online and offers a "guiltless grill" menu that gives diners healthier options.
A Push to Highlight Salt Content on Menus
In a Monday statement, Chili's said it started looking into modifying its menu earlier this year to reduce sodium in its meals.
"As the science around sodium consumption continues to evolve and recommendations are developed regarding consumption of sodium, Chili's will continue to incorporate that factual data into our menu development," the statement read.
Many other chain restaurants also post sodium content on their Web sites, but there's a push to list sodium on menus as well.
At CSPI, Jacobson credited restaurants like KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut for starting to cut back on salty choices.
Though some cities and states already require restaurants to display nutrition information like sodium content on menus and in brochures, CSPI hopes the government will move to regulate salt as a dangerous additive.
The Salt List -- and Healthier Alternatives
The report highlighted five meals with excessive amounts of sodium.
"Those are, you know, practically killers," Jacobson said. "And for somebody that already has high blood pressure, they are really at risk of getting congestive heart failure several hours after the meal."
Still, Ayoob said, "Most of these places also have good choices."
The meals packed with sodium and the better choices include:
At Red Lobster:
No. 1: The Admirals' Feast with Caesar salad, creamy lobster-topped mashed potato, cheddar bay biscuit and a lemonade. 7,106 mg (about 3.1 teaspoons) of salt.
Instead try: The wood-grilled tilapia with fresh broccoli, a garden salad with Thousand Island dressing and an unsweetened iced tea for 555 mg. Order dressing on the side to reduce that number further.
No. 2: Chili's buffalo chicken fajitas with tortillas and condiments and a Dr Pepper. 6,916 mg.
No. 3: Chili's honey-chipotle ribs with mashed potatoes with gravy, seasonal vegetables, and a Dr Pepper. 6,440 mg.
Instead try: The guiltless grilled salmon with marinated portobello mushrooms and a Sprite for 543 mg.
Tips for Reducing Salt Intake
At Olive Garden:
No. 4: Tour of Italy (lasagna) with a breadstick, garden fresh salad with house dressing and a Coca-Cola. 6,176 mg.
No. 5: Olive Garden chicken parmigiana with a breadstick, garden fresh salad with house dressing, and raspberry lemonade. 5,735 mg.
Instead try: The herb grilled salmon, a bread stick and ice tea. 1,111 mg.
"Hunt around and you can find a few meals that are relatively low in sodium," Jacobsen said. "But if you just take a stab in the dark, at any meal, at practically any restaurant, it's going to be high in sodium."
Other tips for reducing sodium intake:
Opt for smaller portions, as well as salads and fruit. "If you've got a salty meal, ask yourself , 'Do you need to eat all of it?' Is it also coming with grease and calories, which is to me the bigger issue. And if it is, think about alternatives," Ayoob said.
Check out restaurants' nutrition information for better choices.
Eat in. Jacobson said frozen dinners have about one-third of the salt content of restaurant meals. "The safest thing would be to stay away from restaurants because it's hard to avoid salt," he said.
Think twice about the extras. "Be wary of condiments and things in cans," Ayoob said.
Speak up. "If you want less salt, just speak up," Ayoob said. "Most restaurants are accommodating, especially in this economy. They're much more willing to accommodate than they were before."
Take it slow: Gradually reduce your salt intake to make the change painless. "There's definitely a way to cut back without having to feel like you are on a special diet," Ayoob said.
ABC News' Vic Ratner and Elisabeth Leamy contributed to this report.