Unsafe Sodium Levels at Denny's Prompt Class Action Lawsuit
Denny's Meals, With Several Days' Worth of Salt, Promote Heart Disease, Stroke, Risk of Early Death
July 23, 2009
WASHINGTON—Most Denny's meals are dangerously high in sodium, putting the restaurant chain's customers at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, according to a class action lawsuit filed today by a New Jersey man with the support of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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 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.
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.
Photo Credit: Jeff Cronin
A Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt with regular fries would have 4,120 mg of sodium; with seasoned fries instead (shown) it has 4,880 mg. Start off this meal with clam chowder and it would have 6,700 mg of sodium.
"Denny's is slowly sickening its customers," said CSPI executive director Michael F. 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."
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. 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."
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.
Even many of the smaller meals advertised for children and seniors have inappropriately high sodium levels.
Many health experts consider high dietary sodium levels to be one of the nation's top health threats. 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.
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."
Denny's describes itself as the largest full-service family restaurant in the United States, with more than 1,500 restaurants and annual sales of $2.4 billion.
"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 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.
CSPI's litigation department has, since its founding in 2004, sued a number of leading national food companies and has secured agreements improving food labeling, marketing, or product formulation with Anheuser Busch, Frito-Lay, Kellogg, KFC, Kraft, Sara Lee and other companies. CSPI's litigation activities helped spur the removal of artificial trans fat from restaurant food and helped return millions of dollars to consumers from makers of the dietary supplement Airborne.
The lawsuit filed today against Denny's is CSPI's first sodium-related lawsuit against a food company. Separately, CSPI has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to regulate salt as a food additive and to restrict sodium levels in various categories of food.