Vani Hari, AKA the Food Babe, has amassed a loyal following in her Food Babe Army. The recent subject of profiles and interviews in the New York Times, the New York Post and New York Magazine, Hari implores her soldiers to petition food companies to change their formulas. She's also written a bestselling book telling you that you can change your life in 21 days by "breaking free of the hidden toxins in your life." She and her army are out to change the world.
She's also utterly full of shit.
I am an analytical chemist with a background in forensics and toxicology. Before working full-time as a science writer and public speaker, I worked as a chemistry professor, a toxicology chemist, and in research analyzing pesticides for safety. I now run my own blog, Science Babe, dedicated to debunking pseudoscience that tends to proliferate in the blogosphere. Reading Hari's site, it's rare to come across a single scientific fact. Between her egregious abuse of the word "toxin" anytime there's a chemical she can't pronounce and asserting that everyone who disagrees with her is a paid shill, it's hard to pinpoint her biggest sin.
Hari's superhero origin story is that she came down with appendicitis and didn't accept the explanation that appendicitis just happens sometimes. So she quit her job as a consultant, attended Google University and transformed herself into an uncredentialed expert in everything she admittedly can't pronounce. Slap the catchy moniker "Food Babe" on top, throw in a couple of trend stories and some appearances on the Dr. Oz show, and we have the new organic media darling.
But reader beware. Here are some reasons why she's the worst assault on science on the internet.
Natural, Organic, GMO-Free Fear
Hari's campaign last year against the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte drove me to launch my site (don't fuck with a Bostonian's Pumpkin-Spice Anything). She alleged that the PSL has a "toxic" dose of sugar and two (TWO!!) doses of caramel color level IV in carcinogen class 2b.
The word "toxic" has a meaning, and that is "having the effect of a poison." Anything can be poisonous depending on the dose. Enough water can even be poisonous in the right quantity (and can cause a condition called hyponatremia).
It's a goddamn stretch to say that sugar has deleterious effects, other than making your Lululemons stretch a little farther if you don't "namaste" your cheeks off. However, I implore you to look at the Safety Data Sheet for sugar. The average adult would need to ingest about fifty PSLs in one sitting to get a lethal dose of sugar. By that point, you would already have hyponatremia from an overdose of water in the lattes.
And almost enough caffeine for me.
And what about that "carcinogenic" caramel color? Well, it turns out that it's not the only thing in your PSL that's in carcinogen class 2b.
Coffee is class 2b because of the acrylamide accumulated during the roasting process. Coffee, before Starbucks turns it into a milkshake, is pretty healthy for you. Class 2b means that all possible carcinogenic effects haven't been ruled out (because we haven't tested drinking it while tightrope walking across the Grand Canyon and simultaneously attempting to eat fire… yet), but that it hasn't been shown to cause a single case of cancer.
This is a blatant attempt at getting you to look to her for answers by making you unnecessarily afraid. The goal of Hari's campaign was to… well, we're still not sure. Remove the caramel color? Smear Starbucks? After that campaign failed, she launched a failed attempt to get them to use only organic milk, which would have made their lattes far more expensive and no healthier.
Hari uses this tricky technique again and again. If I told you that a chemical that's used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed?
What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?
This is Hari's business. She takes innocuous ingredients and makes you afraid of them by pulling them out of context (Michelle Francl, in a review of Hari's book for Slate, expertly demonstrates the shallowness of this gimmick). This is how Hari demonized the harmless yet hard-to-pronounce azodicarbonamide, or as she deemed it, the "yoga mat chemical," which is yes, found in yoga mats and also in bread, specifically Subway sandwich bread, a discovery Hari bombastically trumpeted on her website. However, as the science-minded among us understand, a substance can be used for more than one thing perfectly safely, and it doesn't mean that your bread is made of a yoga mat if it happens to contain azodicarbonamide, which is FDA-approved as a dough-softening agent. It simply means your bread is composed of chemicals, much like everything else you eat.
Hari's rule? "If a third grader can't pronounce it, don't eat it."
My rule? Don't base your diet on the pronunciation skills of an eight-year-old.
A Force to Disagree With
In a recent blog post, Hari accused several of her detractors of having nefarious ties to sinister organizations. These evildoers included Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director for Science and Society at McGill University, Dr. Steve Novella, a Yale-educated neurologist and contributor to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, and Dr. Kevin Folta, the horticultural chair at the University of Florida. Why? Because these highly credentialed scientists had the nerve to use facts against Hari. Dr. Schwarcz speaks out regularly about her tactics. Dr. Novella debunked some wild claims of hers about the science of microwaves. And Dr. Folta said "she found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you're talking about."
But could any of these scientists' criticisms possibly have merit? Not to Hari. She has flung these accusations at Dr. Folta multiple times. He's responded on his personal blog and has released his email correspondence to prove that he has no financial connections to hide. And yet, Hari has not recanted.
Moreover, the tireless crusader for transparency doesn't want you to pay attention to the bullshit behind the curtain. And it's not just when scientists point it out in the news–it's when anybody questions her on her Facebook page.
There's a group on Facebook called " Banned By Food Babe" that boasts nearly 6,000 members. Reasons for being banned include "I asked for her qualifications" and "I pointed out that water was a chemical." Some members of the page were former fans of hers who were banned when they asked questions of clarification. Any dissent couldn't possibly have merit within the ranks of the Food Babe Army.
If she thinks she's being attacked for being a woman, she's missed that she's not the only "babe" in this discussion.
If her arguments had merit, she could engage in a battle of wits with her detractors instead of making insidious accusations. It's not about Hari, the woman who gets home at the end of the day, maybe gives her dog an (organic) treat and watches some crappy TV show. It's about Food Babe LLC, the business organization that spreads terribly inaccurate science.
It's about statements like this:
"The enzymes released from kale go in to your liver and trigger cancer fighting chemicals that literally dissolve unhealthy cells throughout your body."
One of her outspoken critics, Kavin Senapathy, is a writer at Grounded Parents and a contributor at the Genetic Literacy Project. Senapathy has said that the Food Babe "exploits the scientific ignorance of her followers." With a background in genomics, Senapathy is a science writer and likewise an Indian American woman, but I'm sure it's a much more comforting narrative in the Food Babe Army to say that we're all just sexists and racists.
Is It Made With Real Girl Scouts?
How many companies or products do you think it would make sense to crusade against in the course of a career? One? Three? A dozen?
According to Hari, the problem with most of them, including Girl Scout Cookies: GMOs and pesticides. She's even alleged that an apple can be worse for you than a hot fudge sundae, if it's not organic.
And is there even a shred of truth to this? Not in the least. Hari claims going organic will save you from pesticides, but organic farming uses pesticides too. Some of them are far more toxic than conventional pesticides. (Remember, the dose makes the poison. Neither apple would have enough pesticide by the time it reaches market to be harmful.)
As for those GMOs in the Girl Scout Cookies, fret ye not. In order to introduce a genetically modified crop into the food supply, they have to be proven to be nutritionally indistinguishable from their non-GM counterparts.
Maybe Hari's crusades would be OK if she had the facts to back them up. But she doesn't, and worse, when she's wrong, she tries to make her errors disappear.
Recently, a writer from the New York Times contacted me to ask for some background on Hari. I was happy to oblige. She was looking for the articles for which Hari had been widely criticized and that were conspicuously absent from her Facebook page. Hari had told the writer that she couldn't recall those articles.
Luckily, the internet never forgets.
If you want proof that Hari doesn't research anything before she puts it online, look no further than this article on airplanes, which she deleted from her site. She claimed that pilots control the air in an airplane, so you should sit near the front to breathe better air. She wrote that passengers are sometimes sprayed with pesticides before flights, and that airplane air is pumped full of nitrogen.
Please recall high school science, in which you hopefully learned that the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. Also, if anyone has personally been sprayed with pesticides before a flight, please email me, I would love to talk to you about it (not really).
The other piece of writing that she unsuccessfully attempted to cleanse from the bowels of the internet claimed that microwaves are like small nuclear reactors, and they make water crystalize the same way it does when you say "Hitler" or "Satan" to it, because water has ears and a grasp of early twentieth-century European dictators.
Feel Better—Detox and Definitely Don't Vaccinate!
Food Babe has written that, in order to deal with the flu, you should take vitamins, get sunshine, and " encounter the flu naturally." In other words, her advice is to get the flu, an infection that kills an average of 31,000 people annually.
A PSA: Please remember that when you vaccinate, you help protect the people around you who cannot vaccinate. You protect people who are immunocompromised, who are going through cancer treatments, and who are on immunosupressants. If you catch the flu, you become a disease vector and can easily infect more people.
"I won't eat any of these ingredients or even put them on my body," Hari wrote of the components that make up the flu vaccine. "However, the mainstream medical community, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies suggest that I directly inject these ingredients into my bloodstream? And I need do it every year until I die? Are you freaking kidding me?"
Nope! Not kidding. The flu is serious. To scare people into not taking every measure they can against a deadly disease mortifies me. Hari has denied that she's anti-vax, but all the reasons she has for avoiding the flu vaccine are ones anti-vaxxers hold near and dear to their hearts for letting their children suffer. Toxins. Aluminum. Mercury. The usual suspects.
But hey, the next time you're down with a bug, follow Hari's lead and detox your way out of it. Who doesn't want to lose a few pounds, feel better, and have more energy? Hari will help, for only $9/per bottle from her sponsor, Suja.
In Hari's non-defense, they're "only" $6 per bottle from Suja's website.
But wait, didn't she say that the Pumpkin Spice Lattes had a toxic dose of sugar at fifty grams in a grande? So why does she endorse Suja when it has forty-two grams of sugar and even comes with a warning on its website that it's not suitable for diabetics?
It's probably because detox is complete bullshit.
In order to buy into the premise that you need detoxing, you first have to be "toxed." The common enemies they claim that juice can clean out of your system are heavy metals and pesticides. The bullshit? Those don't cause allergies, acne, weight gain, or whatever symptom she's using to scare you into buying overpriced juice this week. Heavy metal toxicity has specific symptoms, and actual pesticide poisoning is really scary.
Neither can be fixed by fruit juice. Not even organic fruit juice.
You're constantly "detoxing" just by living. Your kidneys and liver take care of cleaning out unnecessary things in the body fairly efficiently on their own. Proof? The toilet paper industry.
Go Ahead, Lie About Your Food Allergies
We've already established that Hari has a fickle relationship with the truth. How about the definition of the word "allergy"? That seems basic enough. An allergy is an immune system overreaction. Life-threatening food allergies are serious.
And this one is very serious.
Hari claimed that she's allergic to refined sugar in a blog entry in which she also wrote about about all the desserts she's eaten. But only refined sugar, because apparently short-chain carbohydrates are only evil if they're not from one of her approved sponsored sugar sources. So, I guess she can just eat these now that her acupuncturist diagnosed and treated her for this alleged sugar allergy.
"Go as far as telling the server you are allergic to butter and dairy, soy and corn," she writes. "Butter really isn't bad for you if it is organic and you use it in moderation – but restaurants can go crazy with it, adding several hundred extra calories you can live without."
This is a problem.
I have celiac disease, and there are people with genuine life-threatening allergies. When people like me go into a restaurant, we're at the whim of a waiter who may have just served twenty fussy assholes from the Food Babe Army who think that gluten causes your spleen to turn radioactive, or whatever lie she's using to sell organic kale dipped in yak's butter this week. So when I tell a server that I can't do gluten, that waiter might roll their eyes at me because of people like Vani Hari.
Well, people like Hari and her Food Babe Army. Changing the world, one lie at a time.
Yvette d'Entremont holds bachelor's degrees in theatre and chemistry along with a master's degree in forensic science. With a background working as an analytical chemist, she currently runs Science Babe full time. Her site has become a reliable mix of debunking pseudoscience with humor and science. She lives in southern California with her dog, Buddy. Follow her at fb.com/sciencebabe and scibabe.com.
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