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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.

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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

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“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

noidea

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 10 Science YouTube Channels You Can't Miss 10 Science YouTube Channels You Can't Miss The word science essentially means knowledge, and it is this quest for learning and understanding that has driven mankind to the height of its power. The Web offers ample opportunity to disperse that knowledge to... Read More . 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:

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.

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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.

640px-EPA_GULF_BREEZE_LABORATORY,_CHEMISTRY_LAB._THE_CHEMIST_IS_TESTING_WATER_SAMPLES_FOR_PESTICIDES_-_NARA_-_546277

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.

How does this happen? As it turns out, standard scientific procedure leaves a lot of ways to massage your study to get the result you want. As one study on the subject put it,

“[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.

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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.

scientists

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 Will 3D Printed Food Remove Humans From The Kitchen? Will 3D Printed Food Remove Humans From The Kitchen? You probably know that 3d printers have been used to create everything from mechanical gears to prosthetic limbs and living human tissue. But did you know that they're also being used to print food? Read More . Most people don’t understand how their food is made Lab-Grown Burger Now Costs Less than $10.00 Lab-Grown Burger Now Costs Less than $10.00 Can hi-tech burgers solve the food crisis? As demand for meat grows exponentially, tissue cloning could be the first viable way ahead to solve many environmental problems with some in-vitro magic. Read More anymore, and that’s scary.

Given the lack of clear answers from scientific research, is it surprising that people look online for guidance Love Food & Healthy Recipes? Check Out These Windows 8 Apps Love Food & Healthy Recipes? Check Out These Windows 8 Apps Get great meal ideas for all types of diets. With a portable touchscreen device, you can even prepare your meals with your computer in the kitchen! Read More ? 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.

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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

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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.

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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!

Image Credits: “Sugar,” “EPA Lab,” “Cold Cut Sub,” “Barn,” “Wheat,” “Investigadores,” “Bill Nye,” “Good Food Display,

  1. BJ
    June 9, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    I am still a Food Babe fan! All this cancer and autism and a ton of other diseases are coming from somewhere and I am a firm believer it is the crap we are being fed and told it's food!

  2. Scott Hedrick
    April 30, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Oh, and NDT is an anti-Pluto bigot. It's a planet, dude, give it a rest!

  3. Scott Hedrick
    April 30, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Bill Nye and NDT both throw politics in their science on occasion, and when they do they are often wrong. However, I'll take them over a Food Babe anytime- except for the swimsuit contest, because none of us wants to see Bill Nye in a Speedo.

  4. PJ
    April 27, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    We once believed that DDT was safe. We once believed that cigarettes were safe. We once believed that it was lack of exercise and fat that was making us obese. Science is also an art.

    • Syn
      February 26, 2016 at 1:03 am

      Who is that "we" that believed cigarettes were safe? It never was themedical consensus, only tobacco companies propaganda.
      Is there really scientific evidence that DDT is unsafe?
      Lack of exercise, if not an efficient way to lose weight is certainly recommandable for your health whether you are overweighted or not. No data shows otherwise.
      And if fat is not something that makes you fat, nothing is.

      • deryck
        February 26, 2016 at 3:51 am

        and do you remember the tobacco companies scientists stating that cigarettes do not cause cancer. you can pay a scientist to come up with any results that you want.

  5. Karl Haro von Mogel
    April 24, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Great analysis. It might interest you to know that I dug up the tweet of Hari's where she connected vaccines to genocide. Great to see it spreading around! Thanks for the link to the studies on false positives, those are great resources.

  6. Anonymous
    April 24, 2015 at 3:27 am

    Fools

    • dragonmouth
      April 24, 2015 at 10:50 pm

      Very cogent and pithy post.

  7. Anonymous
    April 24, 2015 at 3:25 am

    Why are so many children sick then?

    • dragonmouth
      April 24, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Because their immune system is not as well adapted to pathogens as an adult's.

    • Andre Infante
      April 25, 2015 at 11:05 am

      How certain are you that kids are sicker in general than they were in the past? Remember to factor polio and smallpox into your considerations. Life expectancy has been going up consistently for a while, which implies generally rising levels of basic health.

      http://demog.berkeley.edu/~andrew/1918/figure2.html

      What's likely happening here is that, first we're getting better at diagnosing subtle diseases like high-functioning autism and ADHD. And, second, mass media increases our exposure to negative trends, creating the illusion that they're growing.

      • Syn
        February 26, 2016 at 1:05 am

        Totally this ^
        "Why are kids sick?"
        Because they are alive to begin with.

  8. William
    April 23, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    Good article and I agree with most. I would not give her credit for the Kraft and GM changes, and I wish Subway had told her where to shove her yoga mat!

  9. Paul Stubbs
    April 23, 2015 at 6:34 pm

    We've already GOT a Bill Nye of food.

    She's attractive, of Indian descent, a mom of two children and one smart cookie.

    Kavin Senapathy - you only need to google her.

    Plus she's got a book coming out that tears Food Babe to shreds and shines some light into those dark recesses where other writers feared to tread. Hari is successful because the media gave her a platform but the same media has been seriously burned several times by Hari, the Wellness Warrior and now Belle Gibson.

    Woo is having a bad couple of months and it's high time we took it down for good.

  10. Les Carter
    April 23, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    A truly fantastic article! So many issues so well discussed.
    Charismatic fear-mongerers have been among us for a long time. 100 years ago they sold snake oil and held tent revivals. The web has increased the size of the 'tent' by several orders of magnitude. And fewer and fewer people turn exclusively to religion to assuage their fears about their future.
    Many of us have turned to the worship of science. But as you point out science is fallible; more precisely science can be mid-used. As Louie said in 12 Monkeys, "Science ain't an exact science with these clowns".
    So we moralize, and much worse, politicize and legislate about health and food. The low-fat diet, the EU ban on imported GMO food, the fear of vaccines, the successful lawsuits over illness from silicone breast implants- the list goes on. Bad science. And of course these are ailments principally of affluent people and societies.
    Your discussion of bias in research is just excellent. Much has been written about high-impact results that cannot be reproduced. And Dr John Ioannidis has written much about this in medical research, largely from a strictly statistical viewpoint.
    Kudos on an excellent piece.

  11. Bart
    April 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Fantastically written and crafted article.

  12. Bob
    April 23, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Food Babe is the Jenny McCarthy of the food world.

  13. Kannon Y
    April 23, 2015 at 3:47 am

    Thanks for the insightful and artfully crafted article Andre. This is one of my favorite reads this month.

    A lot of the growing food culture icons, like Hari and others, make bold claims about food content, peppered with the occasional scientific paper. My favorite is the perennial bugbear: Gluten sensitivity. There's a great deal of evidence showing that gluten insensitivity is largely a myth.

    It's starting to appear that so-called gluten intolerance (basically old-fashioned leaky gut) is somehow related to gut biomes. Gut bacteria. Another study found that glyphosate disrupts gut biomes, which causes leaky gut. Basically, taking a pro-biotic supplement seems to cure the problem. But why buy a simple supplement when you can invest in an entire line of books, supplements, and DVDs?

    What's troubling about Hari is how she doesn't mention that most of the problems caused by "gluten insensitivity" are easily cured. And she keeps whipping GMO as the cause, when all the available science suggests there's nothing wrong with GMO itself. If anything, she seems to distract from the real issue -- and that's how our modern diet appears to be changing the microbial contents of our guts (which causes overeating, strangely enough).

    Those interested in this subject might want to read the following papers:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3554020/

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23224412

    • Ryan Dube
      April 23, 2015 at 5:36 am

      I think the folks who are scientifically-minded and have a problem with GMO's are not the ones complaining about food-safety issues. They're the ones complaining about the environmental/evolutionary impact of heavy-handed agricultural business practices. Speaking of people denying science: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-kimbrell/gmo-science-deniers-monsanto-and-the-usda_b_6904606.html

    • Andre Infante
      April 23, 2015 at 6:06 am

      Ryan: The article you link has a fundamental misunderstanding of why GM is useful. Evolution is a very dumb intelligent algorithm - it can't develop solutions that are many steps away, because the individual steps aren't all going to have positive returns immediately. Bringing in evolutionary structures from very different orders of life (like the pest-resistance genes from crustaceans, which work super well) CAN achieve results that are not possible through traditional evolution. GM is actually better and faster than selective breeding, because it allows us to leverage human intelligence and bring insights into play from across the evolutionary domain.

      Also worth noting that sometimes the things we want and the things that evolution wants are very different. See: Golden Rice. Rice has no survival reason to produce vitamin A, but humans definitely want it to! Going back farther, we've modified a number of staple crops to produce far more food than their natural equivalents, through the use of selective breeding and radiation exposure (seriously).

      Coming at it from the other end, if GM crops are so utterly without value, it kinda raises the issue of why EVERYONE uses them. GM crops have been a smashing success pretty much all over the world, despite constant misinformation campaigns and efforts to ban them. If they're actually not financially better than heritage crops, that kinda implies a massive global conspiracy to perpetuate them, something that would be implausible for a company with a middling market cap like Monsanto to execute.

    • Scott Hedrick
      April 30, 2015 at 12:30 pm

      Biggest problem with GMOs is the marketing, not the plants. If I want to buy a bag of seed, I want to use those seeds at my leisure, not license the right to use them for a particular time period. And if you produce an object that tends to throw out a substance that spreads on the wind and can result in that substance then being incorporated into someone else's similar product, you don't get to sue that other person for using that substance without paying you. If you don't want your patented genes to end up in my crop, then *don't fling them into the wind*.

  14. dragonmouth
    April 22, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Beware of the True Believers! In any field. They rely more on emotion than on facts. The history of the United States and the world is rife with examples of True Believers and True Beliefs that were eventually proven wrong.

    When it comes to nutrition, the facts have gotten lost in the overwhelming noise. How can anybody determine what is "good nutrition" when there are literally hundreds of diets being pushed by "experts"? Diets that are, in many cases, contradictory and mutually exclusive. How can anybody determine what is "good nutrition" when scientific research keeps redefining the facts? The scientific community has flip-flopped on salt at least three times that I can remember. The accepted opinion was that alcohol is no good for you but then studies showed that a moderate consumption of red wine helps prevent heart attacks.

    • Ryan Dube
      April 23, 2015 at 5:28 am

      This is true to an extent...although I'd similarly say, "beware the True Skeptics" -- there are countless times when I've read, "that is stupid and impossible", and then a few years later something comes out that proves the skeptic wrong. Climate change is rife with this nonsense from both sides (one reason I try to avoid those debates).

      The only place to remain is on the fence on any issue whatsoever until the full scientific evidence and facts are in place. Taking a believer side or a skeptic side when the jury is still out scientifically, is completely asinine on both counts.

  15. Kurt S.
    April 22, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    I read it on the Internet, therefor it must be true. People will beleive the stupidest things. Those that subscribe to what "the Food Babe" writes are perhaps amongst the most gulibe fools on the whole bluidy planet. Excellent article that exposes the absolute silliiness of people like "the Food Babe".

  16. Bob H
    April 22, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Bill Nye is not the best role model for a "better Food Babe". He was a Mechanical Engineer for a few years beginning in 1977. He does have a Bachelor of Science degree, but that doesn’t make him a “scientist.” He also has a few honorary degrees, which are meaningless. He was given them solely for being a celebrity. He's primarily an entertainer, not a science expert. He's also hypocrital. He flew from Washington DC to Florida with President Obama on Air Force One for discussions about global warming on Earth Day -- burning about 9,000 gallons of fossil fuel in the process.

    • BEN S
      April 23, 2015 at 1:00 am

      His "educational" videos are all filled with bias, for example on the topic of nuclear power:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDdPk0-SDmI

      GMOs:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKm2Ch3-Myg

      When teaching kids at the level at which these videos are often shown, it is very important to know that their minds are very easily molded. Bias in educational videos is not a good thing.

    • Bob
      April 23, 2015 at 1:19 am

      Was the plane going that way anyway? Would it have been better if he drove separately? What a silly argument

    • Ryan Dube
      April 23, 2015 at 5:21 am

      Bill Nye changed his mind on the whole GMO debate, which was really interesting.

  17. Steve JR
    April 22, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Great article. She needs to go. We need more articles like this one to turn the Hari tide and bring sanity to the table.

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