One of the most common criticisms launched at defenders of science-based medicine by believers in pseudoscience and quackery is that we are “pharma shills.” The assumption, or so it would seem, is that no one would defend science, reason, and medicine unless he were paid off by pharmaceutical, chemical, and/or agricultural companies. The further assumption is that, in contrast to our greedy grasping selves, they are not motivated by such base concerns as money. That is their self-image, that of pure-hearted warriors against evil, the evil being big pharma, big agriculture, big chemical, and whatever other demons they can dream up in their fevered imaginations. Of course, no one, least of all I, really claims that big pharma, big agriculture, and big chemical are pure or that they don’t sometimes engage in questionable or even dishonest practices in the name of profit. And, of course, by contrast, promoters of “natural health” would never, ever be motivated by profit.
As evidence, take Mike Adams—please!—of NaturalNews.com. Remember last Christmas season, when he announced that he was forming the NaturalNews Food Laboratory? Well, he did indeed set up a laboratory early this year in which he used a mass spectrometer to measure levels of various heavy metals in various “superfoods” and supplements, an endeavor that landed him on Dr. Mehmet Oz’s show, where he hyped up fears of toxic heavy metals in a variety of supplements. It was truly depressing to behold, because Oz, as a physician, should understand what a fetid pile of dingos’ kidneys Adams’ “science” is, his ability to throw on a lab coat and look like he knows what he’s doing notwithstanding. His analysis of the mercury in a flu vaccine was hilarious in its cluelessness, too.
All along, I had a prediction, and that prediction was astoundingly obvious. Specifically, I believed that Adams would (1) use his results to attack his competitors (which he has already done) and (2) use his results to sell product, which he hadn’t really done so much, at least not yet. Then I received an e-mail from the NaturalNews.com mailing list announcing this product: Heavy Metals Defense, which is touted thusly:
After months of R&D, testing and regulatory compliance, we are now pre-launching our patent-pending “Heavy Metals Defense” supplement formula to our email newsletter subscribers.
Heavy Metals Defense binds with and captures lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, uranium and even copper.* The following results are laboratory-verified in vitro, using a simulated human digestion protocol and rigorous scientific documentation based on the same ICP-MS instrumentation used by universities and the FDA:
Aluminum reduction: 98.7%
Arsenic reduction: 77.6%
Cadmium reduction: 98.5%
Copper reduction: 95.8%
Lead reduction: 99.9%
Mercury reduction: 92.9%
Uranium reduction: 76.5%
Hilarious! Based on in vitro tests that might or might not be reflective of what’s going on in vivo (i.e., in the gut), Adams touts his magic supplement, which apparently contains a combination of a dehydrated seaweed powder, a seawater extract, grape seed powder, Clean Chlorella and Hawaiian Spirulina. It is true, of course, that extracts from seaweed can contain iron chelating agents and often are touted by people selling alternative medicine and horticulture for such abilities.
Adams claims to have performed “simulated digestion” experiments in vitro in order to measure the reduction of heavy metal captured by his extracts. This simulated digestion is described thusly. Known quantities of heavy metals were added to digestion vials at various concentrations. In the digestion vials was “synthetic gastric acid” and a digestion simulation process “to mimic human digestion as closely as possible.” Then Adams removed the solids from the liquids, stating that the solids “represent what your body eliminates through fecal matter” and that “liquids represent those things absorbed through intestinal walls and into your bloodstream.” He then measured the heavy metal concentrations left over in the liquids.
Do you see the problem with these methods?
I do. First, Adams doesn’t detail the actual methods; so it’s impossible to judge whether his process “mimics digestion.” For one thing, there’s more than just gastric acid to digestion. There are pancreatic enzymes and the mechanical action of the stomach and intestine, for example. None of this was simulated. Pancreatic enzymes are quite able to break down some, if not most, of these solids. Let’s just put it this way. Modeling digestion in in vitro systems is far more complicated than Adams suspects, and the applicability of such models to human digestion is at best tenuous in many cases. A model as simplistic as the one Adams appears to be using would need to be validated. At the very least, animal studies would need to be done to determine whether Adams’ concoction could prevent absorption of lead and various other heavy metals.
Based solely on in vitro results, Adams makes this bold claim:
Heavy Metals Defense is based on a dehydrated seaweed and a seawater extract, and it’s the world’s first supplement designed to be taken alongside foods, herbs and superfoods that you suspect may be contaminated with heavy metals.
As you know, we’ve already documented widespread heavy metals contamination in organic rice protein, herbal supplements, greens powders, cacao, sushi, seaweeds, calcium supplements, green tea, sunflower seeds and much more. This product can help your body capture and naturally eliminate toxic heavy metals found in many different foods, superfoods and beverages, before those heavy metals get absorbed into your blood.*
And that, I suggest, was part of his plan all along. His laboratory was not designed to be a food safety watchdog, as Adams claims. Rather, his laboratory was intended all along as a means to attack his competitors as having heavy metals in their supplements and as a rationale to sell a supplement of his own designed to “protect” you from all those heavy metal toxins he’s finding in his competitors’ products. I have to hand it to him; it’s a beautiful scam. Make no mistake, scam it is.
Then there’s the Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe. Of course, I’ve written about the Food Babe a couple of times before, once when she pulled an astoundingly dumb attack on the “yoga mat chemical.” It’s not for nothing that I’ve referred to her as the “Jenny McCarthy of food,” because she demonstrates the same sorts of misunderstandings of chemistry regarding food as Jenny McCarthy does for chemicals in vaccines. As Jenny McCarthy used to use the “toxins” gambit to demonize vaccines as having formaldehyde, “antifreeze,” and all sorts of nasty sounding chemicals in them. Similarly, Hari tries to demonize various food products as having the “yoga mat chemical” and, yes, “antifreeze.” Neither have a lick of understanding about chemistry and the basic principle of pharmacology that the dose makes the poison. McCarthy demands that the “toxins” be removed from vaccines, while Hari demands that the “chemicalz” be removed from food, as if food weren’t already made of chemicals.
It turns out that Hari, like Mike Adams, is also quite the entrepreneur. She’s been very savvy at establishing a “brand” for herself, and now she’s using that brand to make money:
In less than two years, Hari, 35, has gotten a book contract with Little, Brown (“The Food Babe Way,” due out in February, on her organic lifestyle), a William Morris Endeavor agent to handle her TV appearances and a website packed with advertising and product endorsements. You can even buy an eating-plan subscription for $17.99 a month.
Like other well-trafficked sites, the Food Babe is an affiliate of Amazon.com: If you click on a product and it takes you to the shopping site, Hari gets a percentage from your purchase as well as a percentage from anything else you buy during the same visit.
Google Analytics shared by Hari show an average of 5.3 million page views and 2.4 million unique visitors a month since mid-March. She logs 600,000 “likes” on Facebook, mostly from women between 25 and 34 years old. Her Twitter page shows 64,000 followers.
Being a consumer advocate, which is what Hari calls herself, appears to be lucrative. While Hari declined to disclose what she makes from the website, she and her husband, Finley Clarke, both left what she says were “six-figure incomes” as technology consultants to work full time for foodbabe.com.
In other words, the Food Babe brand has become very lucrative. Viewed through this prism, Hari’s antics are more understandable. She needs media attention, and she needs to fire up her fans. More importantly, she needs to prove that she’s “somebody,” even better somebody her enemies and the enemies of her followers fear. If she can’t keep demonstrating that the food industry fears her by trumping up false controversy and activism against them, she looses her influence and thus her power and, even worse, her earning potential. Now, I’m not saying that she’s in it only for the money. She’s clearly an ideologue with no understanding of science or chemistry. Worse, she’s a telegenic and charming ideologue. Through a perfect storm forged in the confluence of her ideology, ignorance, and budding media savviness, she’s used misinformation and pseudoscience to become an Internet star and a media sensation. She could even be on the cusp of becoming a real star, given her book deal. Indeed, it wouldn’t even surprise me to see her being offered her own television show, probably on basic cable to start, but it’s quite possible she could use her talent for food quackery in the same way Dr. Oz has used his talent for medical quackery to become a daytime TV star.
Although it has nothing to do with her being, at this point, I can’t help but note a part of the article that particularly amused me:
At South Mecklenburg High, Hari got so serious about debate that she jokes about it being her sport. She went to the University of Georgia as a member of the debate team, but quit after a week. She says her family convinced her it wouldn’t help her earn a living. She transferred to UNC Charlotte, where she got a degree in computer science in 2001.
She quit the debate team after a week? Why am I not surprised? Hari can’t debate, nor can she answer simple criticism with science- and evidence-based arguments because her assertions are so patently absurd from a scientific standpoint that she can’t. For example, as I described before, when she was criticized for claiming that propylene glycol is in beer, even though it is not and is only listed because it’s in the coolant used in beer brewing vats, she countered with what to her was an “Aha!” moment, in which she said, in essence, “Aha! You’re wrong. There really is antifreeze in beer! Look, propylene glycol alginate is used as an agent to stabilize head foam.” The problem, of course, is Hari’s profound chemical ignorance. Propylene glycol alginate is alginic acid with propylene glycol groups attached. Chemically, it bears little resemblance to propylene glycol other than those groups, and is very different in properties.
The funny thing is that even Hari’s supporters clearly cringe at her idiocy with respect to the science, with food policy activists worrying that her lack of rigor in her research (talk about an understatement!) will undermine their credibility and make it harder for them to be taken seriously. It’s certainly a legitimate fear, given the level of ignorance that spews from the Food Babe on a nearly daily basis.
But back to the Food Babe’s business model, which is described in another article, Activist or Capitalist? How the ‘Food Babe’ Makes Money. In this article, E. J. Schultz and Maureen Morrison are more explicit about how Hari monetizes her activities:
Ms. Hari declined to answer a question about why she incorporated in Delaware. She also declined to reveal her annual revenue from the site, including how many food guides she has sold or how many brands with which she has business relationships. “This is information that is not important to my activism and my work,” she said, noting that she discloses partner brands when she mentions them in posts. “In order to be an activist you do need funds to do your work, and this is the most honest way that I think I can do that,” she said.
Part of her business model appears to be rooted in her affiliate-marketing partnerships. One of the companies she has recently plugged on her site is called Green Polka Dot Box, which sells home-delivered natural, organic and non-GMO foods. The company’s affiliate partners can earn 30% of the company’s annual $49.95 per-person membership fee for each person referred, plus $2 for every food purchase that person makes as long as they are a member, according to terms of the program listed on the company’s website.
Obviously, Hari incorporated in Delaware for a very good reason, the same reason many corporations choose Delaware to incorporate in: It’s a corporate tax haven, where corporations are “minimizing taxes, skirting regulations, plying friendly courts or, when needed, covering their tracks.” Delaware regularly tops the list of domestic and foreign tax havens because it allows companies to lower their taxes in the state in which they actually do business by shifting royalties and similar revenues to holding companies in Delaware, where they are not taxed.
Another interesting example is Hari’s relationship with a company called The Maca Team, which sells organic raw maca powder. On her site, Hari wrote that the plant can reduces stress, “improve mental clarity,” and “treat PMS.” It turns out that The Maca Team’s affiliate program lets partners earn 20% on each sale they refer. The Federal Trade Commission requires that bloggers disclose paid endorsements “clearly and conspicuously” on their blogs and websites. Although Hari does generally disclose such relationships, Schulz and Morrison questioned whether she met the “clear and conspicuous” standard.
In any case, whenever I’m accused of being a “pharma shill” or accused of being in it only for the money by supporters of people like Vani Hari and Mike Adams, I take great pleasure in pointing out that, in contrast to me (I don’t make any money for my other blog and make only a relative pittance for this one) Hari and Adams make quite a healthy living selling products and, above all, their brands. They’re not alone, either—unfortunately. They might not be in it only for the money, but they’re definitely in it for the money far more than I am, and both of their business models include, what is essentially blackmail of their competitors or targets.