It’s no secret that we here at Science-Based Medicine (and many scientists and skeptics with a knowledge of basic chemistry and biology) have been very critical of Vani Hari, better known to her fans as The Food Babe. The reasons for our criticisms of her are legion. Basically, she is a seemingly-never-ending font of misinformation and fear mongering about food ingredients, particularly any ingredient with a scary, “chemically”-sounding name.
Not surprisingly, as the Food Babe has gained prominence her antics have attracted more and more criticism for her toxic combination of ignorance of chemistry coupled with fear mongering. The criticism started with science and medical bloggers and leaked into the mainstream press, most recently in the form of a recent NPR blog entry entitled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out” that liberally quotes from yours truly and our fearless founder Steve Novella, as well the professor and chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Kevin Folta, who in October complained about the Hari being invited to speak at his university, where she didn’t take questions after spewing her usual disinformation. Indeed, her most recent foray into fear mongering, an attempt to attack Starbucks for its pumpkin spice latte because it not only contains “no real pumpkin” but also contains a “toxic dose of sugar,” and—brace yourself—uses dairy from “Monsanto milk cows fed GMO,” failed.
With a book and media tour scheduled for early 2015, apparently the Food Babe is feeling the heat and has finally responded to criticism on Saturday in a rather long post entitled “Food Babe Scam: My Response To The Attacks On Me and Our Movement“. Utterly predictably, she started with a quote commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Never mind that Gandhi almost certainly never actually said it. Rather, Nicholas Klein of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America did. It’s also a misquote of what Klein did say. What Klein actually said was, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Yes, they did build monuments to Gandhi, but I highly doubt anyone will be building monuments to The Food Babe, either now or many years from now. Her response to criticism is worth examining, however, because her defense itself reveals the many flaws in science and reasoning that led to the criticisms in the first place.
The Food Babe, redux
To be honest, I only became aware of Ms. Hari relatively recently, as in just this year, although apparently she’s been at it around three years now. Basically, her technique is simply and pithily described by a word that appears to have been coined by Trevor Butterworth but is one that I wish I’d thought of first, namely quackmail. Her M.O. is always the same, with minor variations. First, she identifies a scary sounding chemical in a food item. Then she publicizes it to her generally scientifically-ignorant readership and urges them to bombard the food manufacturer or restaurant with complaints and requests to remove said chemical from their product. Up until recently, she has tended to be very successful at this.
One prominent example of The Food Babe’s quackmail (and the one that first brought the Food Babe phenomenon to my attention, thanks to Steve Novella) was her campaign to get Subway to stop using the benign ingredient azodicarbonamide in its bread, a chemical that she characterized as the “yoga mat chemical,” the implication being that, by eating sandwiches made with the bread Subway makes, you’re somehow eating plastic, with the no doubt intentionally-planted mental image of sweaty bodies leaving their residue all over it. Steven Novella discussed the utter ridiculousness of this claim not once but twice, not to mention myself and a certain friend of the blog. It turns out that azodicarbonamide is what’s known as a maturing agent. Basically, when it’s added to flour, it makes bread dough rise better. It also improves the handling properties of dough, yielding drier, more cohesive dough that is more pliable, holds together better during kneading, and machine better. Moreover, azodicarbonamide is barely even in the final product. Once flour is wetted with water, the reaction of azodicarbonamide with the constituents of flour is rapid. By 45 minutes, there are only trace amounts left.
A second prominent example is one that I discussed extensively, namely Hari’s assault on beer, an assault that led me to dub her the “Jenny McCarthy of food.” You can read the details in the link, but basically her “reasoning” if you can call it that, was to borrow a page from the antivaccine manual and engage in some fear mongering about propylene glycol as “antifreeze,” even though according to brewmasters it isn’t even in the final product. Then, when called on this, Hari conflated propylene glycol alginate, which is used in beer as a stabilizer for foam control, and propylene glycol, even though the two are not the same chemical—or even close to the same chemical—structurally. But hey, the shared words “propylene glycol” must mean they’re the same chemical, right? Only if you have no knowledge of organic chemistry and didn’t bother to look up the chemical structures of the two. Amusingly, propylene glycol alginate is derived from seaweed; in other words, it’s pretty “natural” by Food Babe standards.
The Food Babe doesn’t limit her scientific ignorance just to food ingredients, however. For instance, she has promoted the unsupported claim that microwave cooking is evil and robs foods of their nutrients, even using vitalistic language about food being “alive” and microwaves “killing” it, as well as promoted misinformation about the flu vaccine cribbed straight from the antivaccine movement. Most recently, science bloggers have dug up an old post from The Food Babe in which she expresses her view about healthy traveling. As Steve Novella put it, her advice contains some major howlers. Perhaps the one that made me laugh the most was this:
The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.
Apparently Hari doesn’t realize that normal air contains close to 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, with the rest made up of carbon dioxide and other trace gases. Thus, even if Hari’s claim that airplane air contains 50% nitrogen were true, airplane air contains nearly 30% less nitrogen than she normally breathes every day. Yet she seems to think that the airlines are “diluting” their oxygen with 50% nitrogen in order to save money. Personally, I think it’s a good thing that the airlines don’t use 100% oxygen for obvious reasons, not just because of the potential for fire and explosions, but because 100% oxygen is toxic to the lungs. Also, airplane air is recirculated every 3 minutes or so and is highly filtered.
The scientific ignorance on display in that article was so epic that, not long after science bloggers started deconstructing it (Folta amusingly parodied it in a post entitled Deadly Aviation Pretzel Gas: Foodbabeliness in Action), Hari removed it from her website and changed her robots.txt file so that Archive.org no longer archives her site. Indeed, it’s been reported on various Facebook pages that she appears to be engaging in quite a bit of sending embarrassing articles like her travel article down the old memory hole. Perhaps this is in anticipation of her higher media profile in 2015 after her book is released, which looks to be more of the same, given the Amazon.com blurb that starts out with, “Did you know that your fast food fries contain a chemical used in Silly Putty?”
No, but if The Food Babe is all worked up about it, somehow I doubt it’s an issue.
The Food Babe responds to critics. Unfortunately, misogyny, too.
When I first saw Hari’s response to her critics over the weekend, I had to wonder: Why now? After all, she’s remained largely silent in the face of scientific criticism, which in retrospect was probably the smartest thing she’s done over the last year. After all, look at how much more ignorant she looked after responding to criticism about “antifreeze in beer” when it was clear that she didn’t know that propylene glycol alginate was nowhere near the same chemical as propylene glycol. I had to wonder whether it had anything to do with the NPR article about her, although the article reported that Hari’s publicist said Hari wasn’t speaking to the media until her new book is released. I can’t help but wonder whether that was the final straw after she had an op-ed published in The New York Times that provoked considerable criticism and the backlash that resulted from her being featured on the cover of Experience Life magazine, which published a puff piece about her and her “activism.” The backlash was epic, and rightfully so.
And, in her response, she admits as much:
Part of the reason I am responding now is because their messages have started to infiltrate the mainstream media. Seemingly reputable news organizations like NPR (in a blog post titled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out”) even linked to the hate groups – quoting one of their spokespeople and repeated their ridiculous and biased messages as if they have any merit.
Just as Hari is complaining about ad hominem attacks on her, she’s using ad hominem attacks and poisoning the well to fire back. Clearly, self-awareness, thy name is not Food Babe. Also, apparently Science-Based Medicine is a “hate group.” Clearly, when Hari asserts that it’s about the movement and it’s “not about me,” it really is all about her.
In any case, it’s clear that Hari is feeling harried, a sentiment that is obvious early in her response:
With this much game-changing activism and success in a short period of time, it comes as no surprise that some powerful corporate executives and some “independent” voices they help to finance, disagree with our work. An intelligent debate is welcomed, but not all the discussion has been civil.
There’s a group of aggressive scientists, biased doctors, skeptics, agribusiness publicists, lobbyists (and their anonymous webpages and social media sites), along with in some cases, well intended but misinformed people (influenced by propaganda) attacking our work, other consumer advocacy groups, my partners, my friends and me, personally.
Did you think the powerful chemical companies and food giants of the world were going to let us waltz right into their world and turn it upside down?
No – they won’t and, as I expected, the people who wish to keep the status quo are attacking me personally while simultaneously trying to discredit the entire Good Food Movement.
This is, of course, simply a variation of the pharma shill gambit, in which the food industry replaces big pharma as the shadowy evil corporate cabal that is obviously behind all criticism of The Food Babe, because, obviously, no one who isn’t being paid by the food industry could ever find reason to criticize Hari. Or so Hari apparently seems to think. It’s a very arrogant position to take; Hari is so sure of her righteousness that if you oppose her, you’re either part of the evil food industry cabal or a sheeple who’s been deceived by that cabal. It’s also a convenient excuse not to engage seriously.
There is one aspect of this that must be acknowledged, however, and that’s misogyny. It’s one thing to attack Hari’s ideas and claims. That’s such a “target rich” environment that one could write about it over and over and over and there would still be copious material to refute with science. It’s fair game to call her scientifically ignorant, because she provides copious evidence that she is, in fact, scientifically ignorant with virtually everything she writes. It’s even fair game to create pro-science parodies of her, like Chow Babe, Science Babe, and Food Hunk. What is not fair game are some of the Facebook comments that she includes. They are misogynistic and vile in the extreme, which is something that women who go online face all too frequently. One refers to her as a “stupid female” who should “kill herself.” Another wishes death upon her from something she ate. Yet another makes a not-so-subtle reference to raping Hari’s dead body. None of these misogynistic comments and threats of death is acceptable in any way, shape or form, and I condemn them completely.
Indeed, my likening The Food Babe to Jenny McCarthy is even more appropriate than I had thought at the time I did it. McCarthy, after all, has also been the subject of misogynistic attacks based on her looks and her history as a Playboy Playmate of the Year. In retrospect, long ago I even fell into that trap in that I sometimes mentioned her ditzy blonde image and that she was an ex-Playmate as an introduction to dismantling her claims. I now realize that McCarthy’s history with Playboy has nothing to do with her promotion of antivaccine pseudoscience, and it was neither necessary nor appropriate to reference it. McCarthy provided more than enough fodder that needed refuting without mentioning it. The same is true of Vani Hari. Even though she has chosen “The Food Babe” as her “brand,” that does not excuse misogynistic attacks on her and implied rape threats. Any skeptic who has made misogynistic or threatening comments online about Hari is not my friend or ally. To them, I have just one thing to say: Knock it off.
On the other hand, it is necessary to point out that, as inappropriate and vile as these examples provided by Hari are, Hari also appears to be using them to her advantage. I can (and do) condemn such attacks, and will continue to do so. However, I also can’t help but notice that she appears to be conflating the vile comments she’s received on her Facebook page with the reasoned, science-based criticism that she’s been receiving from many bloggers, including us at SBM, all in order to tar reasonable criticism of her fear mongering with the brush of the sorts of misogynistic slurs featured in her response. All of this (or Hari not-so-subtly implies) is supposedly orchestrated by her enemies in the food industry. It’s fallacy of poisoning the well/guilt by association, plain and simple.
The Food Babe responds “substantively” to criticism. Hilarity ensues.
After having condemned criticism that is not science-based but is threatening and misogynistic, I next wondered: What about the substance of her point-by-point responses to criticism? Let’s just say that the same flaws in thinking that led to all the criticism are on full display here. I’ll pick some examples. Perhaps my favorite example is how she responds to the criticism of her chemical ignorance embodied in her “antifreeze in beer” nonsense:
What they say: I exaggerated claims about the ingredients in beer – from Propylene Glycol and it’s derivatives to Isinglass (fish swim bladders).
The truth: The beer campaign was all about transparency and we have the right to know what we are drinking.
For decades the multi-billion dollar beer industry (along with the entire alcohol industry) has gotten away with not disclosing their ingredients and I find this appalling. That’s why I started a petition to ask the 2 largest beer companies to disclose their ingredients. I pointed out several of the ingredients beer manufacturers are allowed to use in our beer according to the Treasury Department, where beer is regulated. I listed these ingredients in the video I created for my petition that received over 40,000 signatures in 24 hours and that ultimately forced Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors to start disclosing their ingredients for the first time in history. Propylene glycol (which is found in airplane deicing liquid, aka “anti-freeze”) and propylene glycol alginate that is derived from kelp are both allowed to be used in alcohol. In fact, Fireball Whisky recently had to remove it’s [sic] products from shelves in Europe because it contained too much propylene glycol (the antifreeze variety). Corona beer uses propylene glycol alginate. Regardless of which propylene glycol ingredient is used in an alcohol product, I believe we have the right to know what ingredients we are consuming. The same goes for “Isinglass” – which is made from fish swim bladders. I know this ingredient has been used for centuries and not harmful, but this is a real issue for vegans & vegetarians. They deserve to know if an animal product was used in its production. Along with these ingredients, I have exposed several other very controversial chemicals in beer my detractors fail to mention, like caramel coloring level IV, carrageenan and high fructose corn syrup. Who will hold the alcohol industry accountable for transparency, if we don’t?
Notice that she’s still confusing propylene glycol and propylene glycol alginate (“regardless of which propylene glycol ingredient is used in an alcohol product”) without acknowledging that they are two very different chemicals and is still mentioning that propylene glycol is in airplane de-icing fluid. Funny, but shouldn’t she also mention that propylene glycol is also of a class of ingredients that the FDA calls “generally recognized as safe” and that large quantities of it can be consumed without causing toxic effects? That’s what I call selective reporting of information, coupled with ignorance of chemistry, given that propylene glycol alginate isn’t even the same chemical. As for isinglass, as I’ve described before, that’s basically what I like to call an “appeal to yuckiness.” Because fish bladders sound yucky, they must be harmful. That bit about vegans is a nice touch, but that wasn’t part of her original argument. She only thought that up after it was pointed out to her that isinglass has been used in beer production since the 19th century. She also neglects to mention that isinglass is removed from the beer before it is sold. While it is true that there is a question among some vegans whether mere contact of one’s food or beverage with animal matter and the possibility that trace amounts of animal matter might remain in it are enough to make such foods or beverages off-limits, if that’s the case then vegans shouldn’t drink most beers because many use gelatin instead of isinglass as a clearing agent. There are also a huge number of foods in whose manufacture gelatins from various sources are used.
Basically, here The Food Babe’s response boils down to: Ignore my chemical illiteracy. It’s all about “transparency.” Of course, she doesn’t seem to realize that her case for transparency was very much undermined by her chemical illiteracy.
Another here’s a hilarious one:
What they say: The phrase “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it” is not scientific.
The truth: I didn’t come up with this clever phrase, but think it’s great advice.
This idea actually originated with Michael Pollan in his prominent book “In the Defense of Food” and later on in “Food Rules” where in rule #7 he stated “Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.”
I love this advice and I think it works well in the majority of cases when reading the ingredient label on food products in the grocery store. Not everyone has the time to tirelessly review all the ingredients allowed in our food system. This simple rule makes it easy for the average person to avoid processed food, which I think everyone can benefit from!
If you can’t pronounce it that probably means the material has been part of the human diet for a minute period of time in terms of the human evolutionary or developmental process. Using many of these substances is a grand experiment that many people would prefer not subjecting themselves or their children to.
In other words, Hari is doubling down on what can only be described as one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard from an activist. The only appropriate response to this is along the lines of a meme that’s been going around Facebook and elsewhere (as always, click to embiggen):
Clearly, Hari should never, ever eat a banana.
The list of “responses” in which Hari just goes on and on and on, with Hari listing criticisms of her and then trying to “refute” those criticisms by, in essence, doubling down on the same misinformation that was being criticized in the first place. For instance, she claims she’s “not antivaccine,” contrary to the evidence in her post on the flu vaccine that argues that she is. Basically, she says she isn’t against all vaccines (while declining to say which vaccines she would recommend) then uses the antivaccine ploy of argumentum ad package insert and cites antivaccine sources, such as Mark Hyman (who recently co-authored a book with—yikes!—antivaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and appeared with him on The Dr. Oz Show) and Joe Mercola, a purveyor of “alternative” medicine and antivaccine activist who has supported the antivaccine group National Vaccine Information Center with considerable cash and co-sponsored with her “Vaccine Awareness Week,” which is designed to make people aware of the fictitious links between vaccines and autism and various other diseases. Elsewhere, Hari claims that she isn’t afraid of answering questions after her talks, when Kevin Folta has clearly described otherwise. Hari even argues:
What They Say: Our findings are based on pseudoscience or we hate science and we are “fear mongering”.
The Truth: If our findings didn’t have any concerns, do not have a solid basis in fact, why are companies willing to drop these controversial chemicals?
As I’ve pointed out before, it has nothing to do with science or pseudoscience. Companies can live and die by public perception of their products. To them, even if their position is rooted in solid science (and we know that The Food Babe’s position almost never is), sometimes it’s far easier and less expensive for them just to give in to a quackmailer like Hari than to try to resist or to go to the considerable effort and expense necessary to counter her propaganda by educating the public. And, make no mistake, quackmail is exactly what Vani Hari is about. I was only surprised and gratified that Starbucks didn’t cave. Maybe that’s a sign that companies are finally getting wise to Hari’s tactics.
Building the brand
Hari is about nothing if not about building The Food Babe brand. Clearly, she was finally goaded to responding (poorly) to legitimate criticism because that criticism has finally crossed over from the realm of science and medical bloggers and skeptics into the mainstream media. Now it’s hurting that brand. With the release of her book a mere two months away, she probably had little choice but to respond somehow, and that’s consistent with her scrubbing her site of the most egregiously-embarrassing posts and setting it so that it is no longer archived and deleted posts can no longer be so easily recovered. I have no doubt that she started out sincere. Misguided and scientifically wrong, but sincere. She’s probably still sincere. Certainly she sees herself that way:
What They Say: I’m in it only for the money or I’m a snake oil salesman.
The Truth: I left a secure career without any guarantee or safety net that this new role as a full time food activist would ever support me.
The people who use this attack don’t know me or my story. When I quit my secure corporate job, in December of 2012, I wasn’t making any money blogging. Everyone needs to find a way to make a living and I feel very lucky that I’ve figured out how to do that without compromising my values. I have now dedicated my life to create a better food system and I feel good knowing my work contributes to the knowledge of others and their quality of life.
I work harder now, than I ever have in my life. I spend my days investigating, writing, meeting with experts and consumer organizations, traveling to conferences, speaking, and attending food trade shows.
Note that her being in it for the money and selling snake oil are not incompatible with her having started out sincere and still viewing herself as a shining white knight battling the evil food industry. Clearly, that’s how Hari views herself, and humans consistently underestimate how much their behavior is affected by money. There’s plenty of evidence in her response that she views this as a Manichean struggle of good (her and her “Food Babe Army”) versus evil (the food industry and its minions). The difference is that, unlike two years ago when she got started, now she makes considerable cash at it. She’s become quite the entrepreneur:
In less than two years, Hari, 35, has gotten a book contract with Little, Brown (“The Food Babe Way,” due out in February, on her organic lifestyle), a William Morris Endeavor agent to handle her TV appearances and a website packed with advertising and product endorsements. You can even buy an eating-plan subscription for $17.99 a month.
Like other well-trafficked sites, the Food Babe is an affiliate of Amazon.com: If you click on a product and it takes you to the shopping site, Hari gets a percentage from your purchase as well as a percentage from anything else you buy during the same visit.
Google Analytics shared by Hari show an average of 5.3 million page views and 2.4 million unique visitors a month since mid-March. She logs 600,000 “likes” on Facebook, mostly from women between 25 and 34 years old. Her Twitter page shows 64,000 followers.
Being a consumer advocate, which is what Hari calls herself, appears to be lucrative. While Hari declined to disclose what she makes from the website, she and her husband, Finley Clarke, both left what she says were “six-figure incomes” as technology consultants to work full time for foodbabe.com.
In other words, the Food Babe brand has become lucrative. Viewed through this prism, Hari’s antics are more understandable. She needs media attention, and she needs to fire up her fans. More importantly, she needs to prove that she’s “somebody,” even better, somebody her enemies and the enemies of her followers fear. If she can’t keep demonstrating that the food industry fears her by trumping up false controversy and activism against them, she loses her influence and thus her power and, even worse, her earning potential. Again, I’m not saying that she’s in it only for the money. Clearly that’s not the case. She’s an ideologue with no understanding of science or chemistry. Worse, she’s a telegenic and charming ideologue. Through a perfect storm forged in the confluence of her ideology, ignorance, and budding media savviness, she’s used misinformation and pseudoscience to become an Internet star and a media sensation. She could even be on the cusp of becoming a real star, given her book deal. It’s quite possible she could use her talent for food quackery in the same way Dr. Oz has used his talent for medical quackery to become a daytime TV star.
Sincerity aside, The Food Babe’s business model is described in this article, “Activist or Capitalist? How the ‘Food Babe’ Makes Money“. In it, E. J. Schultz and Maureen Morrison are more explicit about how Hari monetizes her activities:
Ms. Hari declined to answer a question about why she incorporated in Delaware. She also declined to reveal her annual revenue from the site, including how many food guides she has sold or how many brands with which she has business relationships. “This is information that is not important to my activism and my work,” she said, noting that she discloses partner brands when she mentions them in posts. “In order to be an activist you do need funds to do your work, and this is the most honest way that I think I can do that,” she said.
Part of her business model appears to be rooted in her affiliate-marketing partnerships. One of the companies she has recently plugged on her site is called Green Polka Dot Box, which sells home-delivered natural, organic and non-GMO foods. The company’s affiliate partners can earn 30% of the company’s annual $49.95 per-person membership fee for each person referred, plus $2 for every food purchase that person makes as long as they are a member, according to terms of the program listed on the company’s website.
Obviously, Hari incorporated in Delaware for a very good reason, the same reason many corporations choose Delaware to incorporate in: It’s a corporate tax haven, where corporations are “minimizing taxes, skirting regulations, plying friendly courts or, when needed, covering their tracks.” Delaware regularly tops the list of domestic and foreign tax havens because it allows companies to lower their taxes in the state in which they actually do business by shifting royalties and similar revenues to holding companies in Delaware, where they are not taxed.
Another interesting example is Hari’s relationship with a company called The Maca Team, which sells organic raw maca powder. On her site, Hari wrote that the plant can reduces stress, “improve mental clarity,” and “treat PMS.” It turns out that The Maca Team’s affiliate program lets partners earn 20% on each sale they refer. The Federal Trade Commission requires that bloggers disclose paid endorsements “clearly and conspicuously” on their blogs and websites. Although Hari does generally disclose such relationships, Schulz and Morrison questioned whether she met the “clear and conspicuous” standard.
In any case, whenever I’m accused of being a “pharma shill” by someone like Hari or accused of being “in it only for the money” by her supporters or supporters of, say, Mike Adams, I take great pleasure in pointing out that, in contrast to me, Hari makes quite a healthy living selling products and, above all, her brand. She’s not alone, either—unfortunately. I have no doubt that Hari didn’t start out being in it for the money, and I’m guessing she still probably isn’t. That doesn’t mean that money isn’t an important consideration in determining her behavior. It’s a consideration that can be very easily rationalized as necessary for her to continue to wage her war against what she sees as nasty unpronounceable ingredients in food. (After all, more money equals more fame and power, which would allow her to be a more effective advocate.) Hari might not be in it only for the money, but she’s definitely in it for the money far more than most of her critics, which is why I view her extravagant use of the pharma shill gambit in her response to skeptical bloggers who criticize her pseudoscience and ignorance of chemistry as likely a rather obvious case of projection.