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A New Jersey man sued Denny's Corp. for selling single meals that contained more than a day's worth of sodium without making that info readily available.
updated 1/20/2010 7:10:25 AM ET 2010-01-20T12:10:25

The thought of suing a restaurant because of how much salt their meals contain may seem a little extreme. But the fact is, the food and restaurant industry is hiding a lot of secrets, and it's up to you to defend your health (and your waistline) against their false promises. You don't have to hire an attorney. Simply read on to learn about five court cases that may change your dinner verdict.

EXHIBIT A: Salt-crazy chefs
A New Jersey man sued Denny's Corp. for selling single meals that contained more than a day's worth of sodium without making that info readily available. The case reached the state's superior court in July.

Your brief: Restaurant food is often packed with extra salt. Some meals from Red Lobster, Chili's, and Olive Garden contain about a day's worth of sodium — sometimes even more. High-sodium repeat offenders: shrimp meals, soup, and appetizer dips. If you have to eat out, avoid ordering one of the 30 saltiest foods in America, don't touch the saltshaker, and choose a side of something high in potassium — like a fresh fruit cup with banana or cantaloupe. "Potassium helps your kidneys eliminate excess sodium," says Lona Sandon, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

EXHIBIT B: Questionable sport drinks
In a January class-action suit against the Coca-Cola Co., a San Francisco man complained that a bottle of the company's VitaminWater had almost as much sugar as a can of soda.

Your brief: Carb-loaded drinks like VitaminWater and Gatorade can help replace glycogen, your body's stored energy. But they don't always supply the amino acids needed for muscle repair. To maximize post-workout recovery, a protein-carb combination — which those drinks may not offer — can help. One option: a bowl of 100 percent whole-grain cereal with nonfat milk, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

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EXHIBIT C: Mysterious fruit
A California woman sued PepsiCo, parent of the Cap'n Crunch manufacturer, after discovering that the cereal's Crunch Berries aren't actually fruit. (They're really just — wait for it — balls of sugary cereal! Check out this list of the best and worst cereals to be sure your breakfast bowl is healthy.) A judge dismissed the case in May.

Your brief: Food packaging often mentions fruit, but that doesn't mean the product contains much, even if the fruit is real. For example, "peach and golden raisin fruit pieces" (a preservative-treated fruit mixture) is seventh on the ingredient list of the peaches-and-berries variety of Kellogg's Special K Bars, after corn syrup, sugar, vegetable oil, and other ingredients. And the only other berries mentioned are even farther down the list, where they're paired with sugar. "Buy fruit products only when fruit is one of the first three ingredients listed," Sandon says. "If it's farther down the line, there's little nutritional benefit."

EXHIBIT D:Deceptive diet menus
In July, an Ohio woman's class-action suit against Applebee's and Weight Watchers cited an independent nutrition analysis that revealed that the Cajun Lime Tilapia she ate contained more than twice the fat than the menu claimed it had.

Your brief: Even though many restaurants offer healthy alternatives, you could still be at the whim of the kitchen's cook. A recent E.W. Scripps lab investigation found that "responsible" menu items at chains ranging from Chili's to Taco Bell may have up to twice the calories and eight times the fat published in the restaurants' nutritional information. And don't think "salad" equals lean. The Ruby Tuesday Carolina Chicken Salad has 1,129 calories. Cross-examine menu descriptions: "Creamy, crispy, fried, and battered are all code words for high-fat," says Sandon. "That lettuce by itself is a great choice, but once you add fried wontons, crispy chicken, and creamy dressing, there's a problem."

EXHIBIT E: Fake organic milk
A large-scale suit was filed against Aurora Dairy Corp. — the supplier for Safeway, Wal-Mart, and Target — after consumers spent extra green on USDA-certified organic milk that they claim wasn't organic. A court dismissed the case in June.

Your brief: A half gallon of organic milk costs 60 to 109 percent more than nonorganic varieties, a 2009 study in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found, and whether organic milk is better for you is still being debated. If you prefer to drink it, chances are you're in the clear. "Based on our research, 90 percent of organic dairy brands are produced with milk of high integrity, from family-scale dairy farms," says Mark Kastel of the watchdog Cornucopia Institute, which helped build the plaintiffs' case. "The few giant factory farms that masquerade as organic are bad aberrations." Learn the truth about milk for the answers to all of your questions about moo juice.

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