To put it mildly, I’m not a big fan of Vani Hari, who has achieved Internet notoriety as a highly misguided “food activist” better known as The Food Babe. As The Food Babe, Hari has improbably become a minor celebrity by attacking food companies over various ingredients their products and, unfortunately, seems poised for more. Indeed, given how media- and social media-savvy she has become, it’s not inconceivable that she could become the Dr. Oz of food. The problem with that, of course, is that what she pushes is not good information but rather misinformation. Indeed, she appears to live by the adage that if you can’t pronounce a chemical’s name, it shouldn’t be in food, a particularly brain dead adage if ever there was one. Even for ingredients that she’d demonized that are inarguably natural, such as isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish, she seems to apply a standard that can best be characterized as an “appeal to yuckiness.” In practice, this means that if it grosses Hari out, for whatever reason, similarly it shouldn’t be used in food, even if there’s a long history of its safe use. Basically, it it’s a chemical with a difficult-to-pronounce name or an ingredient derived from a less than savory-sounding animal part, to Hari it is evil.
Examples abound. The first time I encountered Hari was when she attacked Subway for using azodicarbonamide, which is a chemical commonly (and safely) used as a foaming agent in bread, because it’s also used in making foam rubber. That led her to the admittedly clever tactic of referring to azodicarbonamide as the “yoga mat chemical.” Of course, this tactic was intellectually dishonest as well, because it implied (intentionally) that Subway was putting yoga mat foam rubber in bread. Of course, chemicals are used for different purposes all the time, some of which might be in food, and food scientists and skeptics were very vocal about the lack of science behind The Food Babe’s attacks. It’s not for nothing that I pointed out that The Food Babe is to food as Jenny McCarthy is to vaccines. Her ignorance of basic chemistry is epic, too, the most famous example occurring when she became concerned about what’s in beer, leading her to confuse propylene glycol (used in antifreeze) with propylene glycol alginate, an ester of alginic acid, which is derived from kelp. That was the same incident in which she attacked isinglass, a gelatin-like substance derived from fish swim bladders used to clear the beer of yeast and solid particles.
So it was with much amusement and a bit of schadenfreude that I saw on Friday an article in the New York Times by Courtney Rubin entitled Taking On the Food Industry, One Blog Post at a Time. It’s a fairly balanced article that ends up making Vani Hari look not particularly good, which is not difficult because she is so clueless. Of course, I am a bit biased because Rubin quoted a fair number of Hari’s critics, including yours truly at my other blogging gig on my not-so-super-secret other blog, including the bit where I referred to her as the “Jenny McCarthy of food,” which was a modified version of the same post crossposted there. In fairness, I can’t take credit for that comparison because Steve Novella made it first, but such is life. In any case Rubin’s article also quoted other Food Babe critics more notable than I, such as Joe Schwarcz, a chemist at McGill University and Director of McGill’s Office for Science & Society and Kevin Folta, chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, who almost out-Oracs Orac by referring to Hari’s lecture at his university last October as a “corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism” (which is why I like him). To her credit, Rubin also prominently mentioned what is arguably the most ridiculous Food Babe post of all, “Food Babe Travel Essentials”:
In another much-mocked post, “Food Babe Travel Essentials — No Reason to Panic on the Plane!” Ms. Hari criticized the air on an airplane. Because of cost concerns, the air “pumped in isn’t pure oxygen, either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes at almost 50 percent,” she wrote. Except ambient air isn’t pure oxygen, either. It’s roughly 78 percent nitrogen. The widely discredited post, where Ms. Hari also complained about the flight attendants’ stinginess with water in first class, was removed swiftly.
In an interview, Ms. Hari said she didn’t remember the 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 said that she planned to start noting when she clarified or corrected posts.
Steve Novella and I have both discussed this particular post, which, although she removed it from her website, is still available because the Internet never forgets. It reveals a misunderstanding of science so unbelievable that when in the same article Hari brags about how her undergraduate major was actually in the College of Engineering at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and she took “hard science,” I laughed out loud. Either she’s forgotten everything she’s learned or she knows she’s peddling chemical misinformation. Take your pick. Actually, what she neglects to note is that her major was computer science, which requires almost no knowledge of chemistry or biology. (Indeed, in the NYT article she boasts about taking Physics and Calculus, but those disciplines are not really relevant to her activism; chemistry, physiology, and biology are.) One also notes that she’s been promising to note clarified or corrected posts for a while now, and has yet to do it, although it’s been noted that she did admit her mistake in publishing this article, albeit buried on her Facebook page; in other words, nowhere easy to find.
Hilariously, her response to that is:
Ms. Hari said the these particular posts (which she wouldn’t acknowledge as having been discredited) were a feeble exercise in nit-picking that detracted from her mission.
“If you’re going to pick apart every little sentence I’ve written ,” she said, her voice trailing off. She added of her critics, “They have to dig so far and deep to find something to make me look crazy because what I’m saying now is so sane and is so real.”
Of course, this is about as disingenuous as it gets. Her critics are just “digging far and deep” to “nitpick” when we point out massive errors in science in her posts that are obvious to many people with a high school education. Of course, we didn’t have to “dig so far and deep” to find examples of Food Babe idiocy when she was in the middle of her “yoga mat chemical” and beer campaigns. Those were front and center on her blog and activism, and her errors of science and fact were almost as egregious as the post about airplane air. Oh, wait, they have been just as bad, such as her claim that microwave ovens somehow destroy the nutrient content of food irretrievably and her most risible claim of all, namely that “there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever..” Given that food is made of chemicals, I wished her good luck surviving living by that particularly dumb adage.
The pressure must be finally getting to her again, because she actually responded to the NYT article. Unfortunately, she responded to it on Sunday after I had already written my posts for both this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog; so I was unable to respond until now. Predictably, Hari entitled it Response: NY Times Lets Biased Freelancer Attack Food Babe and makes it clear that she’s learned absolutely nothing from the legitimate criticism of her science and dishonest tactics and calling Rubin’s article a “hatchet job.” (To be honest, from my perspective, it was, if anything, too mild. But, then, it was in the NYT.) Predictably, Hari also goes straight for the “shill” gambit:
The reporter featured only the views of certain academics who attack us – every single one of whom has a conflict of interest due to their associations with the food or chemical industries (and this is not disclosed). Although I gave Ms. Rubin the names of scientific, medical and consumer experts who support our work, these did not appear in the story, with one exception (Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group) and even his quote was chosen to support her obvious bias.
Yes, it’s a variation of the pharma shill gambit, something I first wrote about nearly a decade ago, except in this case it’s the the food industry shill or the chemical company shill gambit. It’s also particularly amusing to hear her accuse anyone of being a shill given how skilled she has become at using affiliate-marketing arrangements to monetize her activism. Truly, Hari is not particularly creative, certainly no more so than an antivaccinationists. Not surprisingly, she’s been known to spout off some antivaccine views from time to time, particularly about the flu vaccine.
First up, Hari attacks Joe Schwarcz:
Dr. Joseph Schwarcz is the Director of McGill University’s “Office for Science & Society”, which has in the past received funding from the biotech (GMO) industry Dow, Monsanto, and Dupont through the Council for Biotechnology Information (1). Dr. Schwarcz is also on the Editorial Board for the magazine of the Chemical Institute of Canada, ACCN. Based on his advocacy, one could say Dr. Schwarcz hasn’t met a chemical he doesn’t like.
That bit about “never having met a chemical he doesn’t like” is particularly silly, as though chemicals are things to be “liked” or not. (On second thought, I do rather like ethyl alcohol from time to time.) One could far more accurately retort that The Food Babe has never met a chemical she did like. As Schwarcz wrote in his reply, the ACCN is not an industry group and his office’s funding from the Council of Biotechnology Information was over a decade ago for student interns, none of whose work had anything to do with biotechnology.
I will reluctantly admit that Hari did have one point, and I hope Joe, being a friend, will take this observation to heart, and that’s Hari’s assertion that his comments about her appearance do sometimes come across as being a bit sexist. At least they do to me, particularly in light of the misogynistic comments directed at her. Think of it this way. Some people, myself included, have harped on Jenny McCarthy’s past as a Playboy Playmate of the Year while criticizing her antivaccine views. I don’t do it any more because I came to realize that they were irrelevant and, yes, sexist. Making condescending comments about Hari’s appearance in the context of criticizing her pseudoscience is cut from the same cloth and only serves to undermine that criticism. On the other hand, Hari’s whining that Schwarcz says derogatory things about her knowledge and intelligence made me chuckle, because if anything Joe’s said about her is spot on it’s his criticisms of her ignorance. In fact, Hari’s writing, indeed her very reply to criticism, validates pretty much everything Schwarcz has said about her knowledge base and then some, as his retort to her demonstrates well:
It is also true that I have questioned her mental abilities. How could I not when she wrote a piece about believing that the properties of water were affected by a label on the bottle that had either loving or hateful words written on it. Let me also mention that on numerous occasions I invited her to be a guest on my radio show to air her views and she refused. I stand by my opinion of her. She is a possibly well-meaning, scientifically illiterate publicity hound who bullies companies to conform to her mostly ignorant demands. As far as being addicted goes, the only thing I’m addicted to is proper evidence-based science. And the Food Babe most assuredly does not fall into that category.
There was indeed a time that the Food Babe Dr. Masaru Emoto’s amazing water woo with complete credulity. That was part of her post on microwave ovens. Emoto, if you remember, liked to claim that he could “imprint” emotions and messages on water just by thinking about it and writing various words on the label of the bottles holding the water. He did some hilariously pseudoscientific “studies” in which he claimed to show that “intent” changed the shape of water crystals. The Food Babe invoked his work as though it had any merit and was later forced to take it down. Couple that with her airplane oxygen post and her blunt statement that”there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever” and, if anything, Schwarcz was being too kind about Hari’s scientific knowledge base. She goes way, way beyond scientifically illiterate, her bragging bout having taken a major at an engineering college notwithstanding.
As for people posting stuff on her Facebook page, I would suggest that Hari just deal with it. I’ve been critical of misogyny posted on her Facebook page, which is unacceptable and which she has every right—even duty—to delete. Ditto abusive comments. However, to encounter links to articles posted on her page deconstructing her nonsense is just par for the course. Readers post links criticizing me all the time; I either respond or not. Either way, I generally leave them up. It says a lot more about her that she immediately removes them than it does about anyone posting them.
Not surprisingly, she fires up the shill gambit into overdrive for Kevin Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, mainly because he studies genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Professor Dr. Fergus Clydesdale of the University of Massachusetts is on the Board of Sensient Technologies, a “global manufacturer of colors, flavors and fragrances” – which means they make synthetic food additives. She might have have had a reasonable point that perhaps Dr. Clydesdale’s affiliation should have been mentioned, but unfortunately she just goes all-in for the shill gambit and these are her only complaints about these two; she can’t refute a single criticism they make of her (or, in Folta’s case, that he’s ever made of her). She’s never been able to refute valid scientific criticism.
Perhaps Hari’s most hilarious inept attempt at a shill gambit comes here:
The piece mentions Dr. David Gorski, who also has received pharmaceutical industry funding (6). He likes to vilify “quackery”, and has even attacked the venerable Cleveland Clinic for using some alternative medicine (7). He is simply wrong that there is no propylene glycol, the antifreeze kind, in some beers and alcohol. We know Fireball Whiskey contains it (8) and it’s listed as an approved ingredient in alcohol on the government website ttb.gov (9). This is easy to prove if you aren’t looking to discredit someone. I answered this previously in a response to my critics back in December 2014 (10), but this was ignored and has been re-hashed time and time again.
Wow! Guilty as charged, at least with respect to vilifying quackery and having criticized the Cleveland Clinic more than once. (She says that as though it were a bad thing!) As for the pharmaceutical company funding, it was modest, for one year, and what on earth does that have to do with the food industry or anything said about the Food Babe anyway? It’s not as though I’ve ever worked on GMOs. At least, I’ve never worked on GMOs for food. Certainly over the years as part of my experiments on cancer and cell biology, I’ve genetically modified plenty of organisms (specifically, bacteria and mammalian cells) with various plasmids and viral vectors, but no one ever ate them. There are strict OSHA rules against that, you know.
Her second bit is, not surprisingly, a rather massive straw man about propylene glycol. For one thing, it was never claimed that whiskey didn’t contain it. The discussion was about beer, and this is what Hari wrote in response to criticism that she was exhibiting chemical ignorance when she claimed that there was propylene glycol in beer:
There are a few blog posts circulating that indicate propylene glycol is used in the external chilling system at breweries and that it’s never is added to beer. They go as far to say that the only way it could be in beer is if there is a tank leak. Well, I’m not talking about leaking tanks here. The chemical Propylene Glycol Alginate (PGA) is added to some beers as a stabilizer for foam control and it is sold as an additive under various commercial names such as Stabilfoam. Another potential source of PGA is as a carrier for some “natural flavors” in fruit-flavored and cider beers. Propylene Glycol is added to many foods and drinks, it’s a very common food additive and I see it on ingredient lists everywhere at the grocery store. I know this because ingredient lists are on those items – but rarely on beer. In Germany, Propylene Glycol Alginate is listed as an ingredient on this bottle of Corona as “E405 Alginat” (the European food additive number for Propylene Glycol is E405), and you will also find it on this ingredient list on Sinebrychoff’s website in Finland. So, I’m really curious to know if and what other beers Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors may add this ingredient to.
Propylene glycol alginate is not the same thing as antifreeze. It’s alginic acid (which is derived from kelp) to which propylene glycol is attached as an ester to some of the carboxyl groups. If you’re not a chemist or haven’t taken organic chemistry, don’t worry about it. Just realize that, as I said at the time, it is not the same chemical as propylene glycol, not even close. It is not antifreeze.
Back to Fireball Whisky. It’s odd that she should mention that particular whisky, because my wife and I were in the supermarket the other day and saw it on the shelf. I remember this because I distinctly remember saying that the thought of cinnamon in whiskey did not sound at all appealing to me. Be that as it may, whisky wasn’t under consideration. More importantly, I find it very telling that the best Hari could come up with was a reference to whisky and a link to a government website, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and a list of Flavoring Substances and Adjuvants Subject to Limitation or Restriction, which lists propylene glycol.
Interesting, no, that this is the best she can come up with? I mean, seriously, if Hari had been able to find a single example of honest-to-goodness propylene glycol (and not propylene glycol alginate) in beer—or anything other than in Fireball Whisky—you know she would have mentioned it. I can just picture her furiously Googling to look for such an example, and the best she could come up with were an article in a men’s magazine about propylene glycol in Fireball Whisky and this government web page. Even if there were beers with actual, honest-to-goodness propylene glycol in it, that doesn’t mean they’re unsafe. Indeed, propylene glycol is considered “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA up to 5%. In the end, Hari’s harping on “antifreeze” in beer is no different than the way antivaccinationists try to claim there’s “antifreeze” in vaccines. It’s intellectually dishonest fear mongering.
Finally, what about that bit where it’s claimed that she responded to criticisms of her “antifreeze in beer” gambit but was ignored. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course, the funny thing is that this response of hers is basically a rehash what was already responded to back in December.
It’s good to see that the heat is finally getting to Hari. I tend to agree with Joe Schwarcz’s characterization of her. She’s probably well-meaning, definitely self-righteous as hell (and not in a good way), and, of course, completely illiterate about chemistry. None of this would be a problem if she hadn’t, through a combination of social media and marketing savvy coupled with an accident of fate that led her to her particular new calling, figured out how to effectively bully companies into making public relations moves that have no discernable real effect on food safety, all in the name of saving us from scary-sounding chemicals and gross-sounding natural ingredients. There are many things the food industry does that could benefit from reform, and a true, science-based activist would be a useful contributor to the entire debate about nutrition, food additives, and the food industry. Such people exist, but unfortunately they appear to be nowhere near as famous as Vani Hari. Equally unfortunately, The Food Babe is about as far from science-based as an activist can be, not to mention that she doesn’t even practice what she preaches when it comes to selling products.