You knew I had to talk about Food Babe this week.
My not-so-secret goal with this blog is to improve public science literacy and to help people become more critical consumers of information. As a consumer activist and critic with enormous influence, one might hope that Food Babe’s goals are similar to mine. But I’m afraid I have to give her methods a big red F, and for distressing reasons. Before I get into that, however, I want to give readers who aren’t familiar with Food Babe some background.
Like the decision to vaccinate, the choices we make about food have significant consequences to our health. It’s easy to find advice on how to structure our diet–there is an overwhelming volume of admonitions to eat more protein!, only organic!, less fat!, more fat!, plant-based!, paleo!, non-GMO!, raw!, Mediterranean!, gluten-free! with dire warnings about what will happen if we fail to follow that plan exactly. (I feel particularly sympathetic to parents of young children, who are already stressed out about the incredible day-to-day challenges of raising them in a difficult economy. Shaming them if they’re buying most of their food in bulk once or twice a month at Costco instead of shopping exclusively for their children at Whole Foods is outrageous. In fact, the very ability to make choices about what we eat is a privilege not shared by a huge proportion of the planet’s population…but that’s a subject for another post).
For the average person untrained in science, nutrition, or medicine, the challenge of wading through this mountain of advice on how one “should” eat, sorting out the good advice from the bad, can be daunting. With so many options it’s easy to succumb to decision fatigue–or default to way too many meals at fast food joints.
Diet and health gurus are counting on this. They offer people a simple solution: follow my “movement”, follow my advice and you don’t have to think for yourself about this; follow my simple “tricks” and you’re guaranteed “health”, “thinness” and a sense of belonging to a righteous movement.
Enter “Food Babe” (whose real name is Vani Hari).
On the face of it, a basic message to eat less processed food and improve the nutritional content of restaurants’ menus is something that I and many other scientists and health advocates could totally get behind. (I see from a quick visit to her facebook page that several of my very rational friends “like” her). But actually Ms. Hari’s mission and tactics aggressively promote pseudoscience. Besides being anti-vaccine, and even anti-microwave oven, she campaigns against all chemicals in food, famously saying “When you look at the ingredients [in food], if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it,” and “There is just no acceptable level of chemical to ingest, ever.”*
I understand how this might sound like sensible advice to many people, but this advice betrays a complete lack of understanding of chemistry, biology, or nutrition. To put it into perspective, please read this list of things you probably can’t spell or pronounce, as well as these foods that you would probably consider essential–or at least reasonable–things to consume every day. Our bodies are made of chemicals and our bodies need chemicals, and issues of toxicity and health depend on which chemicals and in what dosage. To simplify this into ‘chemicals’= bad, ‘enzymes’= good is appallingly wrong, but it’s a punchy message that’s very effective at generating attention. As Kavin Senapathy writing for the Genetic Literacy Project put it: “She has made her mark in an all-too-easy exploitation of public fear of the “unnatural,” distrust of establishment and love for fads.”
Ms. Hari also liberally employs the “toxins gambit” to galvanize her followers into boycotting various foods and companies. Orac succinctly summarizes her approach:
“In any case, her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. However, if you have any background in chemistry, much of what Hani is doing is almost painfully transparent, a veritable insult to one’s intelligence and training.
(He then goes on to give some good examples–it’s a post well worth reading.)
Criticisms of Food Babe aren’t confined to the science/skeptical blogging community. As her influence has grown (her Facebook page has over 938,000 “likes”), her posts have also begun receiving significant critical attention from the mainstream press. This New York Times article by Courtney Ruben doesn’t pull any punches:
“Scientists splutter with frustration that to Ms. Hari, the word “chemical” is always a pejorative, and that she yells fire about toxins but ignores that fruits and vegetables are full of naturally occurring toxins and that the dose makes the poison.”
The article quotes several scientific and nutritional experts who take her flawed understanding to task , and also notes that “But mostly the biggest objection to Ms. Hari is the paranoia and fear she whips up.” Another story by NPR “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out” recounts many scientific criticisms of her statements as well.
And now, just this week “Science Babe” (real name: Yvette d’Entremont) has called out “Food Babe” in a post on Gawker entitled “The ‘Food Babe Blogger’ is full of shit”, where she discusses a number of Ms. Hari’s more egregious errors, including several points made above, as well as the following:
“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.”
Ms. d’Entremont isn’t exaggerating for effect. Those are actual things Ms. Hari has written, betraying a lack of understanding of the most fundamental science. The fact that she holds herself out as a brave truthteller with this level of understanding should make you very concerned.
But there is something tremendously important besides her scientific ignorance. Others (as illustrated above) have done a very thorough job of exposing her errors. Instead, I’m more concerned with her reaction to criticism. After all, everyone makes mistakes and writes stupid things (including me), but is in our response to our own mistakes and criticisms of ourselves that we reveal our true intentions. A graceful acknowledgment of error, prompt self-correction and public analysis of where one went wrong, a promise to do better…these are the hallmarks of an individual genuinely motivated by a desire to educate and improve. Ms. Hari does not meet these standards. Her response to the storm of criticisms over foolish articles was to “delete and deny”. According to the New York Times:
“In an interview, Ms. Hari said that she didn’t remember the [nitrogen on airplanes] post, which Mr. Cook brought up by name. She then said it would have disappeared from the blog because it was old. Weeks later, in an email, she admitted that it had been removed because of mistakes, and then said she planned to start noting when she clarified or corrected posts. Ms. Hari said that these particular posts (which she didn’t acknowledge as having been discredited) were a feeble exercise in nit-picking that detracted from her mission.
Despite this grudging admission to the NYT reporter, mistakes in her posts have never since been clarified, corrected, or acknowledged by her. When people bring them up to discuss on her Facebook page, she promptly bans them. Ms. Hari has written responses to the New York Times, and to Gawker, but instead of demonstrating any remorse at her mistakes, or attempts to educate her followers as to how to avoid making similar mistakes, she attacks her critics as being “biased” (in the case of the NYT reporter), or a shill of the chemical or food industry (in the case of Orac, Steve Novella, Fergus Clydesdale, Joseph Schwarcz, and Yvette d’Entremont), and then utterly fails to actually address their criticisms in any substantive way. I can’t help but wonder if there’s any background sufficiently pure to satisfy her enough to take criticisms of her work seriously. (I’m sure she’d even find a way to tie an anthropological geneticist who’s spent her entire career in academia to the food industry somehow. Am I a shill if I eat their products?)
In her response to Yvette d’Entremont (Science Babe), Ms. Hari’s response was particularly ad hominem. Not content to simply accuse her of being beholden to the food industry, Ms. Hari went so far as to publish a defamatory letter from someone Ms. d’Entremont used to date. Ugly, ugly tactics.
Given her position of prominence and influence among many people seeking to improve their health through better eating, this refusal to acknowledge her own mistakes, or to engage seriously with criticisms of her message is very troubling. It is not consistent with a genuine attempt to educate her “Food Babe Army” to become independent, critical thinkers. Instead it is defensive, and smacks of spin…along with her heavy handed scrubbing of comments and banning of critics on her Facebook page.
Why does she take this approach, instead of owning up to her mistakes and trying to improve her understanding of nutrition and science? I fear that it is because she has a significant financial interest in continuing to pander to the pseudoscience community. She receives money from diverse sources, including book sales, speaking fees, and affiliate links and advertisements for supplements that she recommends. Her “brand” is stunningly successful, and for her to admit that she was wrong about anything–or to accept any kind of criticism–would be to undermine that brand. Pseudoscience sells.
Viewed in that light, her tactics make rational (if ethically questionable) sense.
For the average person trying to make sense of the confusing landscape of health and nutritional advice, who might stumble upon Food Babe and want to make an evaluation as to her trustworthiness, the following should be red flags:
- Her use of the “shill gambit” as a response to all critics.
- Her scrubbing of past posts without a good reason (beyond “they were embarrassing to me”) and without explanation, and refusal to acknowledge they exist.
- Her lack of any formal training in science. This should be applied judiciously, it’s not always true that lack of credentials = complete ignorance. But in this case, it is.
- Her affiliation with other pseudoscience salespeople like Joe Mercola and Alex Jones.
- Her attempts to shut down conversations about her credibility, rather than to engage substantively on the issues her critics raise.
- Her constant use of the naturalistic fallacy.
- Her classification of some substances, such as sugar, as “toxic”, unless they happen to be components of products advertised on her site.
And finally, the most telling red flag is that when it comes to assessing the validity of facts, Food Babe’s filter is not “Is this true?” but instead “Does this promote my brand?”
It’s a shame that someone with such an opportunity to empower people to make thoughtful, informed decisions about their health just sees it as a product to monetize.
Twitter followers might enjoy reading tweets under the hashtag #FoodBabeFacts
For interested readers, I highly recommend this open access paper in Nature Chemistry that is a good summary of all consumer products currently available on the market that are chemical free. (h/t Michael Blevins).
My Problem with Food Babe’s Message by Cheryl Wischhover
Are Corporations Putting Feathers in Your Food? by Michelle M Francl
* She has claimed that this quote was taken out of context, but that’s exactly what she said.
Note: Misogynistic criticisms of Ms. Hari or Ms. d’Entremont in the comments section of this post will not be tolerated.