Vani Hari’s blog, The Food Babe, is a sublimely fact-free blight on the Internet.
Buoyed by appearances on the Dr. Oz Show (of course) and a bestselling book, she misinforms an army of followers who exert significant power in the marketplace.
You may recall seeing her on the news last year wielding a yoga mat and terrorizing Subway restaurants.
She claimed that a chemical found in Subway sandwich buns was also used to make yoga mats, so it must be “toxic” and had to go. Faced with a barrage of negative attention, Subway had no choice but to remove the chemical even though there was nothing wrong with it.
One driver of this event was the scary-sounding name of the chemical in question: azodicarbonamide, or food additive E927. Chemical names with a “z” in them seem to be the scariest. Used as a conditioner and bleaching agent in bread flour, E927 is reduced during cooking to biurea, which is excreted easily and rapidly in urine.
It is given “generally recognized as safe” status in the U.S. E927 is also used as a blowing agent in some foam plastic products. As it degrades, it causes the formation of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and other gas bubbles in the yoga mats, making them springy. Yoga mat plastic was certainly not making its way into sandwich buns.
It’s not unusual for components of food production to find other uses. Puffed cereals are used as eco-friendly packing agents, but we haven’t stopped eating them. Water is used to make paint, but the absurdity of a concern over that correlation is obvious to everyone.
Hari has an undergraduate degree in computer science and zero nutritional qualifications. There is no reason we should trust her with food advice any more than I would take a broken computer to a florist. Still, she feels justified in advising us to avoid foods with long chemical names.
The active form of vitamin D is 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol, so I suppose we should avoid that, but lead or ricin would be fine.
She resorts to ad hominem attacks, blaming critics of being shills for big pharma, big food or any other “big” that fits. Sometimes she cries racism or sexism, but she never takes the time to evaluate accusations based on merit.
One of her most qualified critics is the fabulous Science Babe (now SciBabe), Yvette d’Entremont, an analytical chemist and toxicologist who writes that it’s “rare to come across a single scientific fact” on Hari’s blog.
The Food Babe claims that GMO products are all toxic, so to help you avoid them she has prepared a list of ingredients that indicate possible GMO contamination.
This list includes vitamins, minerals, fibre and essential amino acids that she apparently doesn’t recognize. She is against getting the flu shot because it’s better to “encounter the flu naturally.”
True, if you survive the flu, which most healthy people can do even though it’s a week or two of hell, you will gain immunity against that strain. Next year, however, you will be facing a different strain and it just might kill you or someone that you share it with.
Hari displays precious little understanding of the natural world. She writes that microwaving water causes crystals to form in a different way than in un-microwaved water, adding that the crystals resemble those formed by water that has been exposed to nasty words like Satan or Hitler.
Talk nicely to your morning coffee.
Her view of air travel is exceptionally amusing. She misunderstands the term “pressurized cabin,” assuming that air pressure in planes is higher than that on the ground (it’s lower) and rants about the dangers of high pressure environments that she probably read in a Scuba-diving article.
She also complains that “they pump the plane full of nitrogen,” oblivious to the fact that our atmosphere is 78 per cent nitrogen. This article got so much negative attention that she removed it from her blog, but the Internet gremlins have insured it lives on.
Mark Alsip of Badscidebunked posted a list of chemicals banned by the Food Babe.
There is also a list of products that Hari sells or promotes for commission. Alsip and the Science Babe noticed that many products on the latter list contain items found in the former.
The Food Babe probably doesn’t care. Her million-plus monthly readers also don’t seem to care.
In March, The New York Times described her formula. She scours labels for ingredients she has trouble pronouncing, then looks for them in non-food, preferably industrial, products.
With no chemistry-based reasoning whatsoever, she cries foul and sics her army on the company in question, then recommends “safer” alternatives. It should come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that she makes profits from these recommendations through Amazon’s referral system.
In fact, she makes so much money that she and her husband now work full time on the Food Babe blog.
Her latest campaign is against food dyes found in Kraft Dinner. If people are that concerned about what their kids eat, why are they feeding them KD? Full disclosure: I have eaten and enjoyed hundreds of boxes of the stuff. It’s a part of growing up Canadian.
Science Based Medicine’s David Gorsky calls Hari the “Jenny McCarthy of Food.” After a $6,000 talk at the University of Florida, Dr. Kevin Folta, chair of horticultural sciences, said her lecture was “a corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism,” yet her army continues to grow.
Another Science Babe, Dr. Debbie Berebichez, and her ilk constitute formidable adversaries, but the Food Babe’s army has the numbers. Emotion and paranoia seems to be more attractive than logic and reason. Sad, really.
For more information, check:
www.Scibabe.com. “Come for the science, stay for the dirty jokes.”
Food Babe Travel Essentials: No Reason to Panic on the Plane. Note that she eventually took this down and blocked the archives, but it lives here: https://i.imgur.com/Yth0Hw9.png.
The New York Times article: www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html.
Blythe Nilson is an associate professor of biology at UBC Okanagan and
advisory fellow of the Centre for Inquiry Okanagan.