Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Food Babe: Full of S*** or Consumer Rights Hero?


Sometimes it seems like everyone on the internet sees things in black and white.

Such has been the case with the recent media coverage of Vani Hari’s Food Babe blog. For those who don’t know, Vani started Food Babe to share her experiences with the way changing her eating habits improved her health. As she learned more about the ingredients in the foods she ate and the companies that produced them, she became an activist fighting for change in the US food industry. She’s most well-known for petitioning companies like Kraft and Subway to take ingredients like food coloring out of their products. Lately, she has received a LOT of criticism for the way she presents information, and the validity of her research.

I discovered her blog about a year ago via Google, because I was looking for tips on eating healthily on long flights. As someone who has a lot of food sensitivities, it's tricky to start a 24 hour plane journey without planning ahead in regard to food. Her post on the subject helped me a lot, though I wasn't willing to go through the extreme of carrying a cooler onto the plane. So I've been following her work and reading her blog for about a year, and I've also read a lot of news articles about her (written by those on her side and those against her). Lately, most I've what I've read is about how she's "full of shit", how her information is unsupported, etc... Even the New York Times and Elle magazine have published articles about her. There's a LOT of negativity surrounding her at the moment. With one of the largest complaints of critics being that Vani makes a lot of blanket statements, it strikes me as mildly ironic when these same critics make a blanket case against her.

I would like to present my own view/analysis of the whole issue, in what I hope is only a semi-biased manner. I don't want to write another hate article, against either Vani or her critics. I just want people to consider what's happening on both sides of the discussion. So, in no particular order, here are some things to think about before you screech that Vani is "full of shit", or decide to beat up anyone who criticizes her work.

"She's manipulative [and] sneaky." - Cheryl Wischhover

This is a semi-valid point. She's discussed her high school debate background and is definitely good at creating arguments that catch people's attention. Saying, for example, that the same chemicals present in yoga mats are present in bread, and using similarly eye-catching terms and stats, is a really good way to get people's attention. I don't like this tactic much, but at the moment... well it's working. People are beginning to understand what's in their food. I agree with those who have criticized these methods because sometimes her claims are a little outrageous, and extend the truth a bit to make a point. She's not outright lying, but she does phrase things to make her arguments work in her favor. Like I said, I don't really like her methods. But sometimes people don't listen unless what they hear sounds immediate and important. If someone told you there was a complicated-sounding ingredient in your food, you would probably raise an eyebrow but keep eating it, right? Now what if someone told you crazy stories about where that chemical came from? You might reconsider what you're putting in your mouth.

What Vani is doing is marketing her points. Maybe it's not the most 100% ethical way to do it, I'll admit, but she's raising more awareness of this issue than anyone else has.



Her information isn't always backed by science.

No, it isn't. But "science" used to tell us that we should follow a fat-free or low-carb diet in order to lose weight. Today, we've learned the difference between the healthy fats in an avocado versus the fat in a McDonald's Big Mac, and we know the body needs carbohydrates for energy. "Conventional wisdom" used to tell us that it was unhealthy for women to run long distances, until some kick-ass ladies like Joan Benoit-Samuelson and Kathrine Switzer proved them wrong.

Yes, Vani does use the terms "chemicals" and "toxins" loosely. A friend of mine who has studied chemistry was one of the people who sent me an anti-Food Babe article, upset at the way she neglected to clarify her definitions of the aforementioned terms. Perhaps that's something Vani should have explained more clearly, instead of telling us to avoid ALL toxins. But she needed a name that would get the public's attention. In one of the articles I read on this dilemma, Vani was criticized for advising people not to eat anything with an ingredient they couldn't pronounce. And, okay, maybe the chemical name for water is dihydrogen monoxide, which sounds a lot scarier than it is. But if a company is honestly concerned about the health of those who consume their product, why would they bother hiding ingredients under chemical names? What company has ever written "dihydrogen monoxide" on a bottle of water?? The only time this happens seems to be when there isn't a simpler term that the company can use, and that is the problem.

As Vani said herself,

 "You shouldn't need a scientific degree to understand what you're putting into your body."


She relies on anecdotes and personal experience.

How many anecdotes do we need to hear before realizing that science isn't everything? I'm not completely against Western medicine, but when I was little I was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome. My doctor told my parents to give me a pill that could paralyze half my body. My parents, not too into this idea, took me to a naturopath who prescribed nothing more than a gluten- and dairy-free diet, and guess what? That worked just as well, with the benefits being that I am healthier in general and, um, not paralyzed. My point here is that a lot of the time, conventional "wisdom" and pills don't always provide the solution a body requires. In the context of food, no diet or anything is going to tell you what your body needs. No diet plan or whatever is going to be as useful as just PAYING ATTENTION to what your body is asking for. When has the average person ever needed a chemical made in a laboratory to be added to their food in order to it to provide the nutritional value they require??

The article in Elle tried to make this point: "...after Food Babe's insistence, [Subway] removed azodicarbonamide from its bread, even though it's been deemed safe by the FDA as a dough conditioner and is used in hundreds of other food products sold at McDonald's, Starbucks and supermarkets. Food Babe called azodicarbonamide a "yoga mat" chemical because it can be found in yoga mats, but that doesn't mean it's by any means inedible."

Well, first of all, one of her points is that the FDA is not always to be trusted on what is okay for our bodies. And since when are McDonald's and Starbucks great examples of what healthy people eat? Beyond that, does it matter what chemicals have been "proven" safe? What shortcuts are companies taking if their bread requires this sort of chemical as an ingredient?? Our ancestors survived for thousands of years on bread made from flour, water, yeast and salt. That's it. Why the HELL have we started adding processed ingredients like "dough conditioner"? You might say one reason is to cater to a larger audience. For convenience. But profit cannot come at the expense of public health!

"Vani Hari's tips for a 'healthier' life are dangerously close to the tips and discussions you will find on a pro-anorexia page." - Yvette d'Entremont 

I don't like the fact that the title of Vani's new book includes the phrases "lose weight", "look younger" and "in 21 days". Obviously, the point of having these in any book title is to encourage people to pick up the book and buy it. However, this only works as a marketing technique because it preys on people's insecurities. The way these phrases promote unrealistic societal ideals of youth, beauty and instant weight loss is seriously disturbing to someone like me, who in general respects the fact that Vani is trying to promote a more healthy population. I believe in health. I believe in whole foods. But I believe in eating well to stay fit and healthy, not because I'm focused on looking good and avoiding the inevitable process of aging. This may come up in her book- I haven't read it- but the fact that the title neglected to match up with what I thought were some of her fundamental messages is seriously disappointing.

Above I've linked to V'vette d'Entremont's Science Babe blog post on the issue. Her tone is pretty rude and accusatory, and she is definitely someone who I would disagree with about the strength of so-called "scientific evidence"... but she makes some valid points about the relationship between some of Vani's eating tips and pro-anorexia tips. As someone who has struggled with disordered eating for some time, this really bothers me.

There's also an issue with orthorexia going on here, which brings me to the next point...


She's paranoid.

Vani is right about a lot of the chemicals our food contains. But sometimes it's better to just make the best decision you can than to agonize over finding "pure" food. For example, living in Singapore on a student budget, I simply cannot afford organic produce that's literally twice the price of what I can get in the grocery store. In the US it's easier to buy affordable organic products, but what if you can't? Should you just not eat? No, but what happens when you get too focused on eating organic and healthy and toxin-free is that you feel guilty for eating an apple that isn't GMO-free and organic and all that. Then the potential exists for you to say "screw it" and just go buy a Big Mac, feeling like you've messed up anyways and you might as well go all the way, resulting in a cycle of guilt that reminds me very much of a binge-eating disorder.

She complains people get paid to go against her.

Okay, first of all, go look up how much money food companies spent against GMO labeling last year, and how most "yes these chemicals are healthy" research is funded by companies that stand to gain. But also...  I want to know if Gawker authors get paid to write things like this...

Plus, the milk website referenced in the article IS written by a dairy council, which stands to gain from the claims made in the article.

She's doing it for the money.

This idea is from the Gawker article (which suggested that Vani profits from encouraging her readers to buy products like Suja).

Regardless of her income, I believe that whatever Vani is doing, SHE believes in it. She may profit from it, yes, but if you spend your life fighting for what you believe in I don't see the problem with making money from it, so you can dedicate your time and attention to things that matter to you.

Yeah, she may be sponsored by some companies to promote their products. But their products are a lot better for people than, say, Coca-Cola, which is full of ingredients that have absolutely no nutritional value.

On vaccines...

Vani wrote a post about the flu shot, and I'm just going to say that I do not understand enough about vaccines to argue this issue effectively for either side. I know a number of people who are not vaccinated, and a number who are. It doesn't matter whether you are or are not, but let people make their own decisions! I hear so much hate against people who don't get vaccinated, and there are people who matter a lot to me who have to deal with that hate. It's awful. So, make your own decision in regard to your personal health but stop judging others based on their choices! I believe Vani's main reason for not getting vaccinated herself is because of all the other crap that's added into the dose, so maybe this is a problem that needs to be tackled in the medical industry instead of in the realm of food activism...

* * *

If you want to read more about the whole Food Babe debate, check out  this link from The Atlantic as well, or honestly just Google "Food Babe"- this seems to be a hot topic lately.


As always, this post is my personal view and I have no official credentials to back up anything I've said. I am simply a consumer who believes we have a right to know what we're putting into our bodies, which is part of Vani's point. I mean, I understand the challenge of eating fully raw or fully organic, so I don't restrict myself to that. I believe in just striving to do as much as you can. I don’t think the quality of every bite of food should be the focus of the average consumers' life, but we should be able to eat food without worrying it will reduce our health.

I'd like to end with something Cheryl Wischhover, in her article for Elle, wrote that has been echoing in my head for days:

"With Hari's popular reach and the knowledge and know-how of the various scientists who critique her, together they could be a powerful lobby to get some real, actionable change and research happening, rather than just angry blog posts..."

So, great- Vani is mad. Scientists are mad. Regardless of the tactics both are using to get their point across, it's obvious that America's food system has a problem. 

What is it going to take to do something about it? Awareness of the issue is the first step towards a solution, so keep talking!

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