by Steve Gardner
The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed suit today in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, seeking to compel Denny's to disclose on menus the amount of sodium in each of its meals and to place a notice on its menus warning about high sodium levels. CSPI is working with the New Jersey firms of Galex Wolf, LLC and Williams Cuker Berezofsky.
The great majority of Denny's meals is dangerously high in sodium, putting its customers at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
Most Americans should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But at Denny's, the great majority of its meals contain more, and in some cases, several times more. Some meals at Denny's provide more than 4,000 or 5,000 mg of sodium—more than most adults should consume in three days. Diets high in sodium are a major cause of high blood pressure, which in turn is a major cause of heart disease and stroke, the first- and third-leading causes of death in the United States.
As my boss (CSPI’s co-founder and Executive Director) Mike Jacobson put it, "Denny's is slowly sickening its customers. For those Americans who should be most careful about limiting their sodium, such as people middle-aged and older, African-Americans, or people with existing high blood pressure, it's dangerous to eat at Denny's. Denny's customers deserve to be warned about the considerable health risk posed by many of these meals."
The plaintiff, Nick DeBenedetto, is a 48-year-old resident of Tinton Falls, NJ, who has eaten for many years at Denny’s restaurants in East Brunswick and Brick, NJ. Nick takes a prescription medication to control his high blood pressure and at home does not cook with salt or use the salt shaker. Some of his favorite Denny's items, such as Moons Over My Hammy or the Super Bird turkey sandwich, contain far more than 1,500 mg of sodium—even without soup, salad, fried onion rings, or other side dishes.
"I was astonished—I mean, literally floored—to find that these simple sandwiches have more salt than someone in my condition should have in a whole day," Nick says. "It's as if Denny's is stacking the deck against people like me. I never would have selected those items had I known."
Some examples of the high-high-sodium fare at Denny's:
- Moons Over My Hammy, a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, has 2,580 mg of sodium by itself—more than even a healthy young person should consume in a day. It's served with hash browns (adding 650 mg of sodium) or grits (an additional 840 mg).
- The Super Bird sandwich, served with regular French fries, has 2,610 mg of sodium—more than twice what someone with high blood pressure should consume in a day.
- Denny's Meat Lover’s Scramble, which has two eggs with chopped bacon, diced ham, crumbled sausage, Cheddar cheese, plus two bacon strips, two sausage links, hash browns, and two pancakes has 5,690 mg sodium, or 379 percent of the advised daily limit.
- A full meal at Denny's consisting of a bowl of clam chowder, a Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt, and a side of seasoned fries contains an alarmingly high 6,700 mg of sodium. It's a big meal, to be sure, with about 1,700 calories. But that’s more sodium than what 70 percent of Americans should consume in four and a half days.
We first wrote Denny's in December 2007, and our discussions continued until this Spring, when Denny's made it clear that it did not intend to let its customers in on its dirty secret about salt.
We chose to contact Denny's as the first (but not, we suspect, the last) restaurant chain to face a lawsuit for its wrongdoing because, as best we could tell, Denny's is Public Health Enemy Number One when it comes to sodium.
Denny's admitted, when we first met with its lawyers, that it knew that excess sodium was a problem for Americans, and that its meals contained astronomically high levels of sodium.
After several discussions, it became clear that Denny's was more interested in selling its food than in lowering the sodium in it, so we proposed a simple solution: Keep trying to reduce sodium, but in the meantime, Denny's should tell its customers the truth — let them know how much sodium they were getting, so they could make an informed decision whether to order something else or go to a restaurant that served healthier foods.
Keep trying to reduce sodium, but in the meantime, Denny's should tell its customers the truth — let them know how much sodium they were getting, so they could make an informed decision whether to order something else or go to a restaurant that served healthier foods.
After New York passed its law requiring calorie disclosures, a study showed that this information affected consumer behavior — consumers were ordering healthier options. That's all that we asked Denny's to do, after it said it would not make any significant sodium reductions in its meals.
But Denny's refused to do even that, preferring to leave its own customers in the dark about the massive amounts of sodium it was sneaking into their meals.
New Jersey's consumer protection law — and the laws of other states — make it clear as can be. Companies have a legal duty to let their customers know material facts about what they're selling. Denny's knows that the high amounts of sodium in its meals are important to consumers. It just doesn't want its customers to know the truth.
This is a classic consumer protection lawsuit, no different from a suit against a used car dealer who sells a car with 200,000 miles, but with the odometer disconnected.
What we seek is simple — a court order forcing Denny’s to do what it should already be doing: Warning of the risks of high-sodium meals and telling its customers just how much sodium they get when they eat at Denny’s. That way, folks can decide whether or not to risk their lives by eating Denny’s meals.
Salt has been the silent killer for too long — it's time to stop Denny's and other restaurants from being its eager accomplice.