Vani Hari is not having a good month.
Better known as the “Food Babe“, the blogger and activist is one of the web’s most popular advocates for nutrition and public awareness of additives and processing. Her Facebook page has close to a million likes, and her ‘Food Babe Army’ of followers can exert a surprising degree of pressure even on multinational corporations.
Hari has lead (successful) campaigns to get Kraft to drop orange dyes from its mac and cheese, General Mills to stop using genetically modified grains from its cereals, and Subway to stop using a particular additive in its bread.
Hari is no stranger to criticism, and was the subject of an unfriendly NPR expose late last year. Lately, however, it’s all begun to come to a head. A Gawker expose by a forensic chemist and toxicologist entitled “The ‘Food Babe’ is Full of Shit” has attracted enormous attention, and Hari’s reaction has been less than totally mature.
According to the author of that piece, Yvette D’entremont (AKA the “Science Babe”), Hari’s blog serves to get readers to
“look to her for answers by making you unnecessarily afraid. […] 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?”
In response to the piece, Hari began deleting old posts which contain embarrassing claims and accusing her critics of being paid off by big business.
She also went on a long screed against D’entremont, attempting to link one of her former employers to Monsanto. The same post also dug up a nasty email from a former coworker, attacking D’entremont personally and professionally, calling her a “bully” and “a professional button pressor.”
So far, none of this has done anything to slow the growing number of scientists and dieticians who are coming together around the same basic complaint: the Food Babe has no idea what she’s talking about.
The Rise of the Fear Babe
Part of the problem here is that Hari just isn’t qualified in the field she chooses to write about: her education is in computer science, not biology or nutrition. Her interest in nutrition developed after a case of appendicitis. According to her bio,
“It was then, in the hospital bed more than ten years ago, that I decided to make health my number one priority. I used my new found inspiration for living a healthy life to drive my energy into investigating what is really in our food, how is it grown and what chemicals are used in its production. I had to teach myself everything.”
By itself, this isn’t that damning: we live in a world of great, free educational resources. A college degree is not necessarily a requirement to speak intelligently about these issues, but Hari has also made errors that betray a fundamental lack of understanding about basic biology and physics. As Morgan Fisher points out,
- In a blog post that has since been deleted, Hari accuses microwaves of producing radiation that damages your cells, and claims that microwaves alter water crystals in the same way that saying the word “Satan” near them does.
- In another deleted post, Hari suggests that airplanes are bad for you, because they dilute the oxygen in the plane with nitrogen – “sometimes almost at 50%.” Of course, as most of you know, nitrogen makes up about 80% of the air that we breathe all the time.
- Then she said this, without any evidence:
— Food Babe (@thefoodbabe) October 5, 2011
The scientific illiteracy extends to her advice, too. She’s advised readers to lie about food allergies, and has given plenty of dubious nutritional advice that’s already been dismantled by others. Often, Hari doesn’t seem to understand the chemicals she’s trying to get eliminated. In the famous “yoga mat” controversy, Hari and her followers pressured Subway into removing an additive from its bread that is also used in the manufacture of yoga mats.
The chemical in question is Azodicarbonamide, and is used as an oxidizer which changes the texture of the dough. When heated to the temperature of melted plastic, it breaks down into gasses which create the bubbles in the yoga mat. As NPR points out, that additive is also used in 500 other foods, and is considered by the FDA to be safe, at least in the tiny amounts used. Similar stories apply to many of her crusades – Hari just doesn’t have the expertise needed to determine what is and isn’t dangerous. As a result, her blog has become an ongoing series of witch hunts against ingredients that happen to have scary-sounding names, or become toxic at extremely high doses.
Even if you believe the public ought to be more informed about their food, this isn’t helping anything. According to Stephen Novella, of Yale University,
“The ‘Food Babe’ is an excellent object lesson in why people who are not qualified should not be dispensing advice to the public. Spouting uninformed opinions is one thing, but presenting information in an authoritative manner as if from an expert should not be attempted by the non-expert.”
If you weren’t familiar with Food Babe before this, you may be wondering why she’s attracted so much froth. After all, a lot of people on the internet believe crazy things. The worrying part is that Hari is winning – she’s been on TV, on the Dr. Oz show. She got a book deal. She’s pressured a number of companies into changing the way they make food. Like it or not, the “Food Babe” is a force to be reckoned with. That’s a scary prospect.
So how did we get here? How did someone so ignorant about basic biology get so much influence over how our food is produced, and what people believe about it?
The Hard Problem of Nutrition
Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get real data about nutrition. For starters, metabolism is complicated and different between people. If you get a weak effect, it’s hard to know whether it’s because your hypothesis was wrong, or because it’s only true for a small fraction of the population.
Worse, experimenting on human beings is challenging in general. If you want to study the diets of mice, the mice have no choice in the matter. They’ll eat what you want them to eat, when you want them to eat it. Humans drop out of the study, don’t follow the experimental protocol, lie about their results, and are just much harder to get good data out of across the board.
Making matters worse is the enormous politicization of food. There are a lot of activists and corporations who go to enormous lengths to get the results they want. Which diet is best? Is this chemical safe to eat? Someone’s got a lot of money riding on the answer, and it’s not always who you think.
Consider, for example, GMOs. While there are some theoretical environmental issues with GMOs, an enormous body of research makes it pretty clear they aren’t dangerous. This could be due to a massive industry cover-up, but that doesn’t seem to be true: independent studies get about the same results as industry-funded ones.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a handful of studies showing that GMOs are dangerous. If you go looking, you can find studies suggesting that they cause cancer, gluten sensitivity, or digestive problems. These studies have massive procedural problems almost across the board, but that doesn’t stop people from quoting them.
“[D]espite empirical psychologists’ nominal endorsement of a low rate of false-positive findings (? .05), flexibility in data collection, analysis, and reporting dramatically increases actual false-positive rates. In many cases, a researcher is more likely to falsely find evidence that an effect exists than to correctly find evidence that it does not. We present computer simulations and a pair of actual experiments that demonstrate how unacceptably easy it is to accumulate (and report) statistically significant evidence for a false hypothesis.”
If you want to force the outcome of your study, you can run many studies with small samples and only publish the ones that happen give you the results you want. This happens accidentally, because scientists are less likely publish studies with boring, predictable results. The result is a huge bias, across many fields, towards surprising or exciting experimental results. That’s why you often see a crazy headline like “Scientists discover kale cures cancer!” and then never hear anything about it ever again.
Or, if you run the experiment and don’t get the result you want, you can break your experimental group into tiny sub-groups until you find one that happens to show the effect you’re looking for. Magically, your conclusion goes from “onions do not cause cancer” to “onions cause cancer in single hispanic women.” This will always work, if you break a big enough group into small enough pieces.
Or, you can measure a bunch of possible effects – if you keep tabs on enough, one of them will give you the result you want by sheer chance. Want to prove that GMOs do something bad to pigs? It’s easy: just split your pigs into two groups, feed one of them GM corn, and then keep close tabs on everything that can possibly go wrong with a pig. Astigmatism, cancer, heart disease, hoof rot, infections, ten kinds of inflammation, etc. Eventually, you’ll find that the GM-group pigs are doing worse than the control group in at least one way. Boom! You have your result: GM Corn causes hoof rot (or whatever). Again, if you track enough factors, this will always work.
And this is just if you want to get your study accepted to a major journal! You can also just use poor experimental procedure to skew the results, or outright lie about what happened, and get your study published in a pay-to-play journal that’ll publish anything for a couple hundred bucks.
This situation is bad enough in hard scientific fields. Nutrition is much worse, because effects are smaller in general, and practical questions depend on the results. Is my family safe? What should I eat for breakfast tomorrow? There’s a lot of money riding on those questions, and that means a lot of pressure to distort findings in various directions. The best survey so far of various diets compared head to head shows that in the long run they’re all pretty much the same: everybody loses about thirteen pounds. This is after decades of conflicting research finding huge differences between diets in various directions. That’s how bad the problem is.
It’s pretty much always possible to find a study backing up any position you want, no matter how crazy. It’s only when you view a field as a whole that any kind of insight is possible. Unfortunately, very few people are qualified to analyze thousands of studies with various biases, and pull out useful information. The “Food Babe” certainly isn’t one of them.
The Wicked Witch of Food Science
This confusion leaves a lot of room for cynical people to exploit public ignorance to turn a profit. As Earth’s population grows, producing enough food gets harder and harder, and the techniques used get more complicated. Most people don’t understand how their food is made anymore, and that’s scary.
Given the lack of clear answers from scientific research, is it surprising that people look online for guidance? It’s easy for a charismatic online persona like the “Food Babe” to feed peoples’ fears, and sell them the seductively simple idea that all the progress since the agricultural revolution has been a mistake – cherry-picking and misinterpreting scientific studies to make that case. On the Internet, you can move mountains if you have a strong personality and a feel for the zeitgeist.
People are scared about what they eat, and science isn’t giving them satisfying answers. Hari fills some of that void.
The truth, Hari will tell you, is simple: what we really need is to go back to nature. Crops, not chemicals. Organic, free-range, GMO-free, pesticide-free, all natural, nothing you can’t pronounce, nothing confusing, nothing scary. That’ll just be $16.20 for the book, $299.95 for the juicer, $119.88 a year for the eating guide. Free shipping on orders over $30.
Hari is making a lot of money selling her followers stuff to make them feel safe from the dangers that she writes about, and she’s been paid “consulting fees” by the companies she campaigns against. In the same corner, Oprah and Dr. Oz – worth $3 billion and $7 million respectively – have both made a killing promoting organic food and sham medicine, and cultivating fears of GMOs and vaccines. Fear is big business, and Hari has brought it to the Internet, and turned it into a marketable platform.
Commerce and Controversy
Hari’s reaction to the latest bout of criticism has probably hurt her public profile, but it would be wrong to count her out. There are some powerful cultural pressures behind her “Food Babe Army,” and Hari has already begun to present her critics as shills of powerful corporations (including, ironically, NPR). It’s unlikely that her most ardent followers will be swayed by the scientific establishment calling her out on factual errors.
The truth is that what Hari is doing is important – people do not understand how their food is produced, or how it affects their health. Worse, the science of the matter is so confounded, corrupt, and complicated that it’s impossible for lay-people to get a handle on it. Charismatic, accessible bloggers who can reach into the mess and extract useful advice are a necessity.
Right now, that niche is filled by people like Hari, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson have proven that it’s possible to be both scientifically credible, and a persuasive public figure. A Bill Nye of food could be what the field of nutrition education has been looking for for years.
In other words, discrediting Hari isn’t enough, because the niche she fills isn’t going away. What we must do, eventually, is build a better Food Babe. We need someone who can satisfy the same need for simple answers, but do so in a scientifically responsible way. Maybe we could call her the Fact Babe.
Are you worried about where your food comes from? Upset at the pseudoscience surrounding the issue? Let us know in the comments!