A grain of salt

Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

If there's anything good about putting warning notices on packages of frankfurters, it's that the labels could say: Beware of Dog.

A New Jersey lawsuit demanding cigarette-pack-type warnings on hot dogs is mainly a crank case by a veganism advocacy group, the sort of legal action that makes for headlines rather than meaningful consumer protection. That suit - and another one filed just a day later in New Jersey demanding that Denny's restaurant menus include the sodium content of all its dishes (as well as a warning label about the dangers of salt) - represents the kind of where-does-it-end silliness that makes even reasonable food-labeling laws seem out to lunch.

Citing a study that correlates daily consumption of processed meats with higher rates of colo-rectal cancer, the sausage suit by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine calls for a label that says consuming hot dogs "increases the risk of cancer." It's a self-serving and simplistic reading of research that is looking for helpful answers but that is far from conclusive at this point. Should hot dogs be a diet staple? Probably not. But many foods can cause some kind of harm if eaten to excess - obesity, if nothing else. People can even overdose on water. We note that the Physicians Committee isn't slapping suits on peanut butter, which naturally contains low levels of aflatoxins, also connected to cancer.

Though calorie counts on menus provide useful, easy-to-digest information on the health cost of going out to eat, a trip to a restaurant shouldn't be a fun-punishing exercise in sorting out nutrition labels. Until consumers take responsibility for the elemental functions of eating and exercise, they can expect to see higher rates of diabetes, stroke and heart attack.

The salt lawsuit was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest on behalf of a 48-year-old man with high blood pressure who says he was "astonished" to learn of the sodium content in many Denny's dishes. But a man who takes medication for blood pressure should be educating himself about salt content; there should be nothing astonishing about the sodium levels in a pileup of ham, eggs and cheese that reportedly was his regular order at Denny's.

Denny's and many other chains offer charts with the full nutrition information on all their dishes, including sodium content, both online and on request at their restaurants. In a world filled with potentially unhealthy options, people with specific dietary needs should be doing a little research before calling the waitress over.

Food-police lawsuits like these do serve a purpose, though, even if it isn't to bring common-sense information to the table. Crazy-making headlines make consumers ask more questions about their food, and that's all good. In June, Denny's introduced a line of healthier alternatives with lower salt and fat content. It did so because of consumer demand, not fringe lawsuits.



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