As the campaign against salt continues, there come both good news and bad news from the processed foods front. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has concluded that the average sodium content of processed foods is decreasing. However, it says, the rate is still too slow to help those 60 million Americans afflicted with high blood pressure, a condition said to be affected adversely by a high-sodium diet.

The trend to lower sodium content "is promising," says Bonnie Liebman, CSPI's director of nutrition. "It shows that the food industry is making some effort to reduce the high sodium content of their products. But it also means we have a long, long way to go." She notes the average sodium content of the decreased sodium products is still over 1,000 mg per food item; the National Academy of Sciences recommends a daily intake of between 1,300 and 3,300 mg. Since 1983, CSPI has been tracking the sodium content of 100 individual commonly eaten foods in Part 1 of its study and 165 product lines containing 2,500 foods in Part 2. From 1983 to 1986, the sodium content of 27 out of the 100 products dropped while that of only nine increased. Between 1985 and 1986, 15 percent of the 165 product lines showed decreased levels of sodium while only 7 percent showed increased levels. Not until this year, she says, has such a clear trend of decreases outnumbering increases been established.

On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration's studies -- which track 1,200 products, weighing the value of products with higher sales more heavily -- have shown virtually no change since 1978 in the sodium content of longstanding products. Yet Ray Schucker of FDA's Office of Consumer Studies says there has been a dramatic sodium decrease in the food supply overall.

Schucker says that CSPI's survey does not include the reduced-sodium variations on old products and new low-sodium products that have been introduced by manufacturers in the last 10 years. Because of these new products "the average value of the declared sodium in the food supply has declined sharply," Schucker says.

"Even if it means buying a different brand," he says, every product class has information available about its sodium content so that anyone trying to manage his or her sodium intake can act accordingly.

"That's nice," says Liebman, "but it's not the solution. We would like to see a decrease in their excesses in their regular line of products. A company will have 20 regular products and throw in one of low sodium. They are usually more expensive, and in some special dietetic section." These low-sodium products, she says, do not affect mainstream shoppers.

Jim Heimbach of the FDA, in turn, says that while the CSPI's survey is accurate as far as it goes, it is not representative of the whole food supply because it does not take into consideration the volume of sales of certain products. "You can't make statements based on 2,500 foods and say the food industry has done so and so," he says.

To which Liebman replies, "Even though it is not perfect, our study does represent a huge number of products and it gives us a clue to what's going on."

The following recipe is low in sodium but you will not need special reduced-sodium products. With just sugar and vegetable oil in your cupboards, you'll be ready to fly through the express lane.

Express Lane list: chicken, coconut, onion, garlic, ginger root, lemon grass or lemon, chili powder CHICKEN RENDANG (6 servings)

2 1/3 cups shredded coconut

1 cup boiling water

3-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 teaspoon sugar

1 medium onion

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1-inch piece ginger root

1 to 2 stems lemon grass or a few strips lemon peel

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 to 4 teaspoons chili powder

To make coconut milk, process 1 1/3 cups coconut with 1 cup boiling water in a blender or food processor for about 20 seconds.

Strain mixture through a sieve into a large bowl. Press mixture in sieve with a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. (May be frozen for future use.)

Heat remaining coconut in a heavy skillet until dry, golden and crisp, turning constantly to prevent burning. This will take several minutes. In a blender or food processor, process hot coconut to small crumbs. Pour into a small bowl; set aside.

In a blender or food processor, process onion, garlic, ginger root and lower 2 inches of lemon grass stems or lemon peel to a paste.

Heat oil in a large saucepan or wok over medium heat. Add onion mixture; cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring. Reduce heat. Stir in chili powder to taste; cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.

Spoon coconut cream from coconut milk; add to pan. Heat until hot. Add chicken; turn to coat with spice mixture.

Pour in remaining coconut milk, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. Add top part of lemon grass stems. Cover and simmer until chicken is almost tender, 35 to 40 minutes.

Before serving, stir in coconut crumbs to thicken sauce. Cook 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove lemon grass and serve.

From "Low-Salt Cookery," HP Books (1986).