The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, and seeks to compel Denny's to disclose on menus the amount of table salt, or sodium chloride, in each of its meals and to place a notice on its menus warning about high sodium levels.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that adults in the United States should consume no more than 2,300 milligrams per day of sodium, about one teaspoon table salt, but all persons with hypertension, all middle-aged and older adults, and all blacks should consume no more than 1,500 mg/day of sodium.
The plaintiff, Nick DeBenedetto, 48, is a resident of Tinton Falls, New Jersey, who has eaten for many years at Denny's restaurants in East Brunswick and Brick, New Jersey.
DeBenedetto 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," DeBenedetto said. "It's as if Denny's is stacking the deck against people like me. I never would have selected those items had I known."
Denny's Moons Over My Hammy, a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, contains 2,580 mg of sodium — more than even a healthy young person should consume in a day, the CSPI points out.
Denny's Lumberjack Slam contains 2,770 milligrams of sodium. (Photo by Paul Ark)
The Double Cheeseburger contains 3,880 mg of sodium, according to nutritional analysis on Denny's website, more than half again as much as a healthy person should consume in a day.
A side of hash browns with onions, cheese and gravy contains 3,820 mg of sodium, Denny's website shows.
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 of 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 6,700 mg of sodium - more sodium than what 70 percent of Americans should consume in four and a half days.
From company headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina Denny's issued a statement Thursday calling the lawsuit filed by CSPI "frivolous and without merit," and saying the company "will fight it aggressively in court."
"With hundreds of items on the menu, Denny's offers a wide variety of choices for consumers with different lifestyles, understanding that many have special dietary needs, the company said.
Denny's and CSPI had been in private negotiations over sodium, but those talks ended earlier this year. Shortly thereafter, the chain made small sodium reductions in a handful of items, like cheese sauce, shrimp skewers, and kids' meals, but the chain did not make the kind of broad sodium reductions or menu disclosures urged by CSPI.
In June 2009, Denny's launched Better For You items, allowing customers to order lower sodium and fat alternatives. Earlier this month Denny's launched a Better For You kids menu, the company says.
All nutritional information, including sodium content of menu items, is available online at http://www.dennys.com/LiveImages/enProductImage_690.pdf.
But CSPI says posting the sodium content of its foods online is not good enough. "By concealing an important material fact about its products — namely, that that these foods have disease-promoting levels of sodium — Denny's is failing its responsibility to its customers and is in violation of the laws of New Jersey and several other states," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.
"Denny's is slowly sickening its customers," said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson. "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," Jacobson said.
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, the CSPI argues.
Dr. Stephen Havas, adjunct professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, says that reducing the sodium content of packaged and restaurant foods by half would save at least 150,000 lives per year.
He warns that for some people, particularly Denny's elderly patrons, getting several days' worth of sodium in a single meal might be enough to trigger congestive heart failure.
"As a physician, I have grave concerns about the sodium levels at Denny's, and grave concerns about an elderly person or someone with hypertension eating even one such meal," Havas said. "The body can have a hard time getting rid of that much salt, potentially leading to fluid retention and accumulation in the lungs. Consuming that much sodium can have severe consequences."
At year end 2008, there were 1,541 Denny's restaurants: 315 were owned and operated by the company and 1,226 were operated under franchise and licensing agreements. The restaurants are located in the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Guam, Mexico, New Zealand and Puerto Rico. The majority of restaurants are located in California, Florida and Texas.
This lawsuit is CSPI's first sodium-related lawsuit against a food company. Separately, the center has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to regulate salt as a food additive and to restrict sodium levels in various categories of food.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.