08/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Denny's Culinary Crime Spree

Is Denny's actually trying to kill off its best customers?

In all likelihood, no. After all, the company wants to continue selling Moons Over My Hammy and Lumberjack Slams, and it's cheaper to retain an old customer than find new ones.

But Denny's is slowly but surely sickening its regular customers with dangerously and unnecessarily high levels of sodium, largely from salt, in most of its meals.

We at the Center for Science in the Public Interest think that the sodium levels at Denny's are so out of control--and hidden from customers--that we're serving as co-counsel on a class action lawsuit filed against the chain in a New Jersey court. That lawsuit is aimed at getting the chain to warn consumers about how much sodium is in each offering. The lawsuit, based on New Jersey's consumer protection law, was filed only after we engaged in many months of ultimately fruitless negotiations with the company.

Keep in mind that people over 40, African Americans, and people with high blood pressure--that's 70 percent of all adults--should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That's not per meal. That's for an entire day's eating. The rest of the population can safely consume a bit more, about 2,300 mg per day (equivalent to one teaspoon of salt).

The more salt in your diet, the higher your blood pressure is likely to be. And the higher your blood pressure, the greater your odds of having a heart attack or stroke, both of which can be cruelly incapacitating or instantly fatal.

Three-quarters of Denny's meals have more than 1,500 mg of sodium. For 70 percent of the population, the only way to eat healthfully at Denny's without exceeding that recommended limit would be to fast for the rest of that day--and part of the next day or two. One would still also have to order very carefully, since many possible meals at Denny's provide 3,000 or 4,000 or even 6,000 mg of sodium. It's a culinary crime spree.

Consider the aforementioned Moons Over My Hammy. It's basically a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich that comes with hash brown potatoes. If saying the words "Moons Over My Hammy" out loud weren't disincentive enough to order this item, how about the fact that it has 3,230 mg of sodium? That's more than two days' worth for most Americans.

Consider a double cheeseburger with French fries. Most people know that's not a health food. At McDonald's, that meal has about 1,500 mg of sodium--a day's worth for most of us. Denny's (bigger) double cheeseburger with fries has 4,130 mg of sodium. That's 275 percent of the recommended daily limit.

A full dinner at Denny's can be even worse. Say you start with a bowl of clam chowder, and move on to a Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt sandwich and seasoned fries. That meal has 6,700 mg of sodium (along with 1,700 calories). For healthy, young adults, that's more sodium than should be consumed in three days. For everyone else, that's basically four-and-a-half days' worth of salt in one dinner.

We met privately with Denny's officials to get them to do something meaningful about sodium, like agreeing to a schedule of gradual reductions over several years, and, in the interim, to disclose on menus just how much sodium is in each food or meal. The officials we talked to acknowledged that sodium is a problem in the American diet and that Denny's fare is high in sodium. Apart from reducing the sodium in several foods and adding a few lower-sodium choices, the chain failed to take action.

Prior lawsuits (two of ours among them) helped eliminate artificial trans fat from most chain restaurants, including most foods at Denny's--a huge public health victory. We're not trying to eliminate salt. But we know that Denny's can cut way back on the sodium chloride and still sell plenty of Meat Lover's Scrambles and Super Grand Slamwiches. Any customer that missed all that salt could easily add it back at the table (though it's hard to picture anyone adding several thousand milligrams back!)

Perhaps the judge who hears the case will be the occasional Denny's patron. We can picture she or he telling the company: "Stop it Denny's. You're killing me."
Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter.