Doctors recommend against eating more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. Order a Denny's double cheeseburger and you'll consume 3,880 milligrams in one sitting, almost double the suggested daily allowance of salt.
Denny's meals "are dangerously high in sodium," according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by a New Jersey man with the support of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group active in nutrition and food safety issues.
Nutrition advocates have won legislative and corporate lobbying battles to rid most of the food industry of artery-clogging trans fats and to compel restaurant chains in some cities and states to reveal the calorie counts of their foods. Now, they're turning their guns on salt.
"We have clear and convincing evidence that sodium is associated with high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke -- and it is pretty consistent across populations and ethnic groups," said Dr. David Katz, a preventive medicine specialist at Yale University Medical School. "It is unconscionable that a single meal would have 2,000 milligrams or more of sodium," Katz said.
The New Jersey Superior Court lawsuit alleges that Denny's heavy use of salt puts "the restaurant chain's customers at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke." The lawsuit asks the court to order Denny's to list the sodium content of its food on the menu and warn about the hazards of consuming salt in high doses.
Denny's Corp., which is based in Spartanburg, S.C., called the suit "frivolous and without merit."
"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," said the company, which has about 1,500 restaurants nationwide.
Some of the data cited in the lawsuit was mined from nutrition listings on the Denny's website.
The lawsuit was filed in Middlesex County on behalf of Nick DeBenedetto, a 48-year-old resident of Tinton Falls, N.J., who said he takes medicine to control blood pressure. DeBenedetto is seeking class-action status for the suit.
DeBenedetto said he "was astonished" to learn the sodium content of Denny's food. "I never would have selected those items had I known."
Salt-laden selections include the Meat Lover's Scramble, an amalgamation of cheese, eggs, bacon, diced ham and sausage that comes with more meat on the side plus hash browns and pancakes. The meal has 5,690 milligrams of sodium -- the equivalent of nearly three days' advised maximum salt intake. A scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese meal on the Denny's "senior" menu has 2,060 milligrams of sodium.
Such heavy intake could trigger congestive heart failure in some high-risk patrons, said Dr. Stephen Havas, adjunct professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed the lawsuit after private talks with Denny's failed to persuade the chain to make the kind of broad sodium reductions or menu disclosures that the group urged, said Michael Jacobson, the group's executive director.
"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," Jacobson said.
The group also has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to regulate salt as a food additive instead of an ingredient that is "generally regarded as safe." Such a change would make it easier to regulate sodium levels in food, such as by limiting the amounts permitted in various food categories.
Although they acknowledge that excessive sodium consumption is a problem in America, health experts aren't necessarily lining up with Jacobson's group and its publicity-grabbing lawsuits.
Katz, the Yale doctor, said that by focusing so intently on salt, nutrition advocates risk de-emphasizing greater dangers to public health, such as the high number of calories people consume daily.