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The Stroke Foundation says putting a legal limit on salt in processed foods would save lives.
New Zealanders needed to at least halve their average consumption of 9 grams of salt a day, or about 3.6 grams of sodium, to meet World Health Organisation guidelines, Stroke Foundation chief executive Mark Vivian said.
A small proportion - about 15 percent - of sodium in the diet was added at home in cooking or at the table.
Too much sodium raised blood pressure, which in turn increased the risk of stroke and heart attack.
"We've got to stop thinking of this as an issue about food preservation and taste, it's an issue of life and death - too much salt in the New Zealand diet is killing people."
Most salt came from processed foods, breads and canned goods.
Foods containing a large amount of sodium include bread, butter, cheese, biscuits, canned fish, processed meats, some breakfast cereals, most takeaway food, most sauces and most canned or processed food.
The Stroke Foundation wanted the Government to set mandatory sodium levels in processed foods, after a US Institute of Medicine report found the levels of sodium in American food from manufacturers, food service operators and restaurants was too high.
"While many major food manufacturers are taking voluntary steps to reduce the salt level in food products, more needs to be done," Mr Vivian said.
"Setting legally enforceable salt standards in processed food would ensure manufacturers are accountable for their actions."
The foundation planned to lobby the Minister of Health later this year.