by Katherine Pett
Vani Hari, AKA The Food Babe, has taken the Internet by storm and created quite a controversy. Supporters laud her for taking on corrupt “Big Food,” but scientists and doctors aren’t so sure. The Food Babe is proud of the fact that she doesn’t understand science, and says so herself in her new book, The Food Babe Way. As a student at the Friedman School, I decided to investigate.
I was determined to not hate The Food Babe Way. I actually figured I would buy most of Hari’s arguments. After all, she’s for effective labeling and more clarity in the food industry, goals that are downright noble in my mind. Sure, she has been lambasted on Reddit and NPR, critiqued by The Atlantic, and debunked by scientists like Kevin Folta, Steven Novella, and Michelle Francl, but she must make a few good points, right?
The Food Babe is a banking consultant turned investigator best known for getting the “yoga mat” chemical, azodicarbonamide, taken out of the bread at Subway restaurants. Emboldened by success, she has identified other chemicals she believes are hazardous and has gone after numerous other food producers, including Kraft and General Mills, demanding they reveal ingredient lists and remove food additives.
The Food Babe’s campaigns have caused a stir. Experts argue that The Food Babe’s activism is actually fearmongering: she is making people afraid of GMOs, food colorings, and antioxidants (used as preservatives) and causing a national case of chemophobia.
I’d done my background research on Ms. Hari, and I felt ready to approach the book with an open mind. No, she doesn’t understand much about biochemistry, but neither does most of America! That doesn’t mean citizens aren’t capable of understanding food and making healthy choices. It also doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to engage with the food industry.
So I went into the book with a mission: Who really IS the Food Babe and what can we learn from her book? And this is what I decided…
As a Friedman Student and as a human being, I simply cannot recommend that anyone read this book.
The Food Babe is NOT a Science Fan
The Food Babe bills herself as a friend of the public and an enemy of “conventional wisdom.” In her words, “I’m not a part of the nutrition, dietetics, or medical establishment. And that’s a good thing, because many of them have swallowed and passed along the industry-funded advice that has made us all sicker, fatter, and more unhealthy than we’ve ever been in history.”
While it’s certainly true that a lack of nutrition education has kept her out of the pocket of “Big Food,” it’s also kept Hari from being able to discern scientific evidence from not-so-scientific evidence.
Consider, for example, her widely publicized critique of microwaves (that has now been taken down from her blog). In her character assassination of the technology, she claimed that microwaving food not only destroys nutrients, but that it alters water’s crystal structure, something she said can also be done by exposing water to the words “Hitler” or “Satan.”
While her book unfortunately doesn’t make claims this entertaining, she still advocates for getting rid of your microwave and espouses some radically unscientific theories. For instance, she declares that pasteurized milk is the reason for increased bone and heart diseases in the United States.
Pasteurization, she says, “kills” phosphatase, which is necessary for calcium incorporation into bones. Without “alive” phosphatase, the calcium you drink cannot leave your veins and simply sticks to your blood vessels, causing calcification and artery disease.
I’m not sure where The Food Babe got this idea, but it is false. Not only are enzymes and proteins in our food not alive, and thus cannot be killed (we can only assume she means that they are denatured, or misshapen by the heating process), people don’t need dietary phosphatase to absorb or utilize calcium. This “fact” is just one of many less-than-true assertions she makes.
However, what is astonishing about the depth of Hari’s ignorance is that most of it could have been cleared up with a little Wikipedia. Surely making the connection that “azodicarbonamide” is in both yoga mats and bread took a little Googling—why couldn’t she have Googled the amount of it you’d have to consume for it to be problematic? (It’s a lot.) It leads one to think that perhaps The Food Babe isn’t as interested in the truth as she’d have you believe.
The factual mistakes in her book overshadow her valid points. She rightly, in my opinion, points out the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and criticizes the White House, and Michelle Obama in particular, for endorsing Subway as “healthy food” for kids. Despite these and a few other helpful tips, I felt the good parts of this book came too few and far between.
The Food Babe is Not a Writer
The style of the book, sort of a tone-deaf combination of conspiracy theory and pop-science, did not win me over. Vani Hari may have a talent for scaring food companies, but she does not have a deft hand with prose.
The Food Babe Way often feels as if it was written by a valley girl describing like, the grossest thing she like, ever, like saw. For instance:
“The word ‘natural’ on a label is virtually bogus.”
“There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”
She repeatedly and ham-handedly uses terms like “toxins,” “laced,” and “poison” to describe food additives, deliberately making processed foods seem more like illegal drugs than, say, macaroni and cheese.
She mentions castoreum, and how it’s derived from beaver’s anal glands four separate times. She uses the word “laced” fifteen times. She uses a form of the word “toxin” over one hundred times.
About 50% of the book, it seemed, was ingredient lists of processed foods with the “toxins” bolded. The same processed foods could be listed (with the requisite multi-page ingredient lists) more than once. Sugars and sodium were bolded as “toxins.” Surely no one would be surprised to learn that a chocolate chip cookie contains added sugar, but when they read that the cookie is “laced with” “toxic” added sugar, they may get a different impression.
It is one thing to read a diet or lifestyle book that is beautifully written, argued, or researched, even if you don’t agree with all the findings. It is quite another to feel like you’re reading a very, very long high school paper. Books by Michael Pollan or Malcolm Gladwell can be hotly and intelligently contested, but they are at least well crafted.
I point out Michael Pollan as a foil because he and the Food Babe share many of the same beliefs (he is referenced several times in “The Food Babe Way”). For instance, the Food Babe gets her advice to avoid foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce from Pollan. They share a fundamental unease with GMOs and a similar approach to dieting. Because of this, I recommend potential Food Babe readers try some Michael Pollan instead. They will hear many of the same viewpoints accompanied by better research and writing.
The Food Babe is NOT an Idiot
If you follow The Food Babe Way diet, I commend you, because it seems complicated. Every day you have to drink lemon water with cayenne pepper and a green juice, and you can never, ever eat a GMO or a non-organic bite of food. Her meal plans in the back of the book look like they barely hit 1,000 calories per day.
However complicated the protocol is, it is healthy. The Food Babe diet is like an expensive, all-organic version of the USDA diet guidelines: plant based, low in red meat and saturated fats, and including only whole grains.
By the time I finished the book I was convinced that the Food Babe knew exactly what she was doing. Her book reads like a phishing email, designed so only the most gullible will follow up, join the Food Babe Army, and buy the Food Babe products. A growing online backlash against the Food Babe frequently cites how Vani Hari banishes critics from her blog and Facebook page. When scientists questioned her theories, she shot back a blog post saying, calling critics “hate groups” and arguing that “these issues are too important to be left to experts.”
While Ms. Hari is absolutely right that the public can and should be engaged in public debates about food safety and nutrition, I don’t think this is what she is doing. Unilaterally deciding that something is toxic and scrounging up a gullible public to follow her unquestioningly is the opposite of intelligent debate.
At the end of the book, she inserts a recommended reading list that includes books by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle. I recommend you skip The Food Babe Way and go right to those instead.
Katherine Pett is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program at The Friedman School. She is NOT in the pocket of the food industry, either that or they haven’t told her how to access her secret account in the Caymans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @smarfdoc.