Monday, August 15, 2016

#1705: Vani Hari

A.k.a. The Food Babe
A.k.a. The Jenny McCarthy of Food

Food Babe is the blog of Vani Hari, an internet troll and “consumer advocate” who specializes in advice on nutrition and health-related matters, topics on which she has no background, education (she has a degree in computer science and background as a management consultant) or even minimal understanding – trusting the Food Babe on food or health is much like trusting Donald Trump on vaccines or the random Deepak Chopra quote generator on life wisdom. She is, in other words, full of shit.

Food Babe’s primary thing is nature woo. She is strongly anti-GMO and pro-organic (she claims that going organic will save you from pesticides, so she clearly doesn’t understand what organic farming actually amounts to; organic farming uses pesticides as much as non-organic farming) but also endorses anti-vaccine conspiracies, raw milk advocacy and the premises for alkaline diets. But mostly, she peddles chemophobia, anti-intellectualism, appeals to nature, appeals to yuckiness (“yucky” apparently trumps “natural”), toxin gambits (where “toxins” is basically just a rebranding of the medieval “ill humor”) and, really, incoherent babbling.

Hari’s approach to chemistry has been aptly described as being like “a grade 8 science level flunkie who is taking revenge on a subject she never tried to understand.” In fact, as opposed to most toxin scare advocates, Hari is confident enough to suggest criteria for identifying dangerous toxins, with tragically hilarious results: toxicity is determined by how scary or unfamiliar the scientific name of the ingredient is. According to the Food Babe, “when you look at the ingredients [in food], if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.” Here are some ingredients the Food Babe probably should avoid. She later modified the criterion to: “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.” We’re all gonna die, I suppose.

She recently published her book (foreword by Mark Hyman) The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! No, we didn’t make it up. It’s really called that. And the title alone should tell you that her advice on nutrition and health is as reliable as spam mail and that anyone who takes her seriously is a raging moron. True to form, it opens with claiming that “[s]cientists are now blaming chemical-ridden food for the dramatic rise in obesity, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, infertility, dementia, mental illness, and more.” There are no references for that passage. We are pretty sure that no scientist has provided her with that incoherent nonsense. But “[w]hat’s really concerning to me is that the majority of the medical establishment, including registered dietitians, have some sort of industry tie […] It’s entrenched. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the corruption. And to talk about it in a way that people understand.” Vani Hari is … Galileo! It’s the Galileo gambit, laced with conspiracy theories and ad hominem fallacies and even an admission that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about!

Some Examples of the Food Babe’s Efforts

Hari doesn’t use her microwave oven, apparently partially as a result of being convinced by Masaru Emoto’s water woo. Her article on the matter, according to which “water that was microwaved did not form beautiful crystals” but “instead formed crystals similar to those formed when exposed to negative thoughts or beliefs [a.k.a. “Hitler crystals”]”, quickly disappeared from her website and was blocked from the Internet Archive – she is rather effective at covering her tracks whenever she says something so stupid that even her fans start to wonder – but there is a snapshot here (a more detailed discussion here). In the article she also claims that “[l]ive, healthy, and nutritious foods can become dead in a matter of seconds when you use a microwave” (one has to wonder what she thinks she is actually eating) and cites Andreas Moritz’s book Cancer is Not a Disease – It’s a Survial Mechanism. Cancer is a disease, not a survival mechanism. Moritz also sells paintings with healing powers that activate “codes within the DNA structure that are linked with total immunity to disease and full use of the body’s enormous, but so far untapped, potential”, though apparently you have to buy them from him to enjoy the healing benefits. 

Hari did cite some studies to back up her claims that microwaving food destroys nutrients. She didn’t read/understand them, however (or just bet on her readers not following the links), since the only serious studies among them didn’t really claim what Hari thought (said) they claimed. She also claimed that microwaving food releases carcinogens into the food (no citation or specification of what those carcinogens could be, of course), and repeated the dioxin claim, which is an ancient urban legend.

Flu shots and conspiracies
Hat tip? Please inform me if this is yours.
In a Twitter post in October of 2011 Hari claimed that the flu shot “has been used as a genocide tool in the past”. She didn’t provide evidence or further information for that claim either. She did, however, delete the tweet. Archived here.

She was at it again with an essay “Should I get the flu shot?”, an article that has been considered remarkable in certain quarters for managing get every single claim wrong. True to form, she starts with “I want you to think about what you are directly injecting into your bloodstream,” being apparently unaware that the vaccine is an intramuscular injection, and continues by asking “What’s exactly in the Flu Shot? To sum it up – A bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of Cancers and Alzheimer [sic] disease over time.” Ah, the toxin gambit, as always. Which toxic chemicals? “Egg Products (including avian contaminant viruses), Aluminum, Thimersol [sic] (Mercury), Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), Chick Embryo Cells, Latex, Formaldehyde, Gelatin, Polysorbate 80, Triton X100 (strong detergent), Sucrose (table sugar), Resin, Gentamycin [sic]. I won’t eat any of these ingredients or even put them on my body,” which, we suspect, is false (there goes the vegetables) as well as irrelevant. 

Hat tip: Destroyed by Science.
Moreover, the flu vaccine doesn’t contain aluminum, only multidose versions contain thimerosal (which is not “mercury”), and the dose makes the poison, but it is probably pointless to even try to point that out to someone like the Food Babe. She even asserts that “the CDC even admits it doesn’t protect you because the virus mutates every year,” which is a lie motivated by a staggering failure to understand how vaccines work: “Why do I have to get a Flu Shot every year? Aren’t vaccines suppose [sic] to immunize you for life?” It is indeed remarkable how she is able to approach a moderately complex topic and, through abject misunderstanding, distil it into something so staggeringly wrong.

Hat tip: RtAVM
And that’s even before we enter conspiracy theory land. “Why are Flu Shots recommended for children, women who are pregnant and the elderly?” asks Hari. The answer is, of course, “because they are at more risk of death from influenza”, but the Food Babe’s answer is that they have weak immune systems, which is weakened even further by the vaccine [huh?] and make them “even more susceptible to the flu.” It is, in other words, all a plot to … well, it’s not clear, but surely it’s to the benefit of Big Pharma, who are fooling us all: “The Ministry of Truth is involved with news media, entertainment, the fine arts and educational books. Its purpose is to rewrite reality to change the facts to fit doctrine for propaganda effect.”

She finishes by recommending us all to achieve immunity by going out and getting the flu, which of course sort of defeats the purpose, especially since the immunity won’t protect you from future strains. It’s almost as if she wants you to get sick to benefit … never mind.

She has also (famously) claimed that the pressurized cabins in airliners compress your internal organs and cause deep vein thrombosis. The pressure inside an airliner’s cabin is actually lower than air pressure at sea level, but the complexities of variations in pressure is suspiciously sciency and subtle and it is therefore difficult for her to take it seriously. She also shockingly discovered that the air in the cabin is “mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%”. She did, admittedly, attempt to delete that article, even from web archives, before too many people noticed. Screen capture here.

Beer Brewing
In 2013 Hari drew some attention for her “shocking” discovery that beer contains the ingredients it is supposed to contain. To bolster the appearance of scandal, she also claimed that beer contains MSG, isinglass and carageenen, which it doesn’t (not that it would have been a problem, but isinglass “is fish bladders” and fish bladders are yucky), and that brewers add sulfites to beer, which they don’t. Wine makers often do, however. Hari is an advocate of wine drinking.

She did claim to have conducted a substantive “investigation” into beer ingredients, but evidently failed to consult basic information on how to brew beer – apparently she reported her “shocking findings” under the delusion that the ingredients were secret, which she would have discovered they aren’t if she had consulted any brewing handbook or brewery website. She also claimed that brewing is unregulated and that brewers can put anything they like in the beer, which is Donald Trump-level false. A run-down of the hysterical silliness and falsehoods of her claims can be found here, and in even more detail here.

Oh, and she claimed that beers contain propylene glycol, or anti-freeze. When critics pointed out the mistake, she gloatingly responded by pointing out that Corona contains propylene glycol alginate. Propylene glycol alginate is not propylene glycol; which really doesn’t require much understanding of chemistry to figure out. Wikipedia would have sufficed, too. The stupidity burns hot here, and is fuelled by proud ignorance.

Coca-cola and pepsi
In 2013, Hari helped Sarah Kavanaugh force Coca-Cola and Pepsico to remove brominated vegetable oil from their drinks, with the result that the products have become even less healthy. They don’t contain certain ingredients whose names Vani Hari finds alien anymore, however.

Starbuck’s Pumpkin Spice Latte
In 2014, she attacked the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Among her (uniformly ridiculous) complaints were:

a) that it contained “no real pumpkin,” which is because “pumpkin spice” means the flavorings added to pumpkin pie and not the pumpkin itself; it’s like complaining that cat food contains no cats.
b) that Class IV caramel color is listed as a Class 2B carcinogen; that is, a category of chemicals that have actually not been linked to a single case of cancer. As opposed to bananas, which are proven carcinogens.

More details here.

Yoga Mats
“the worst example of pseudoscientific fearmongering I have seen in a while”
Steve Novella, neurologist
Yale School of Medicine

One of her most famous campaigns were her 2014 one against Subway for their use of azodicarbonamide in their bread dough. Her reason was chemophobia (and the level of idiocy is once again staggering): Azodicarbonamide is a chemical, and therefore scary (though not particularly toxic and anyways broken down during baking, a subtle detail lost on grand-vague-ideas-people like Hari). It is also used as part of making plastic foams. Molten table salt is used in heat-treating steel and soybean oil in printing ink, but apparently these are usually talked about using their familiar names rather than scary-sounding technical names and therefore don’t count as chemicals (here are five kindergarten level facts about chemistry everyone ought to understand – Food Babe proudly doesn’t – before talking about science). The campaign actually led to Subway pledging not to use it in their bread dough, which they had already decided not to do for independent reasons.

For Salon one Lindsay Abrahams apparently swallowed Hari’s nonsense hard enough to write “Subway’s Bread to no Longer Contain Chemical Found in Yoga Mats.” Lindsay Abrahams is not a trustworthy person. She is untrustworthy because she is an ignorant hack.

“The enzymes released from kale go in to your liver and trigger cancer fighting chemicals that literally dissolve unhealthy cells throughout your body.” We’ll just leave that quote up here for all to see.

As most promoters of untruths they don’t want you to know about, Hari is persecuted. In particular, she is persecuted by experts, who are sometimes audacious enough to describe her bullshit as bullshit and identify her fear-mongering as fear-mongering. Hari’s response is usually to portray herself as the victim of corporate shills, since everyone who disagrees with her must be in a conspiracy to silence her. When Snopes weighed in on her Starbuck’s charges, for instance, her followers quickly chimed in to claim that the website was bought off by Starbuck’s, and the Food Babe has herself dismissed the backlash against her by scientists, experts or anyone with minimal knowledge of the world, reasoning and marketing ploys as manufactured by “the processed food lobby” and “industry-funded science.” When you can’t engage with the content, invoke the conspiracies. (The previous link, a NYT article that quoted her response, was also dismissed by Hari as “hatchet job”, before she launched the shill gambit yet again – basically accusing her critics of being scientists, therefore interested in serving the science industry and therefore biased against her claims, which are as far from science-based as they could conceivably come short of cubing time.)

In 2014 she wrote another essay aiming to refute her critics by ascribing them ulterior, nefarious motives. To make her case, she lied. 

She has, however, made great efforts to cover her tracks to hide her most idiotic efforts (and not only by deleting old posts and tweets). In November 2014 she made a change on her web server to prevent use of the Internet Wayback Machine for her site, and she also attempted to block donotlink. She is also famous for her attempts to cover up her misinformation by extensive censoring on social media or her blog of any scientifically informed criticism (yes, another hallmark of crackpottery). It is worth mentioning that there is a Facebook group “Banned By Food Babe” with some 6,000 nearly 10,000 members; the reasons for being banned include “[pointing] out that water was a chemical” and asking questions for clarification.

The marketing ploy
Of course, Hari’s success relies on her use of fear as a marketing strategy, and a (successful) marketing strategy it surely is. Fear and bullshit sell. You can find a good article on Vani Hari’s business model and strategies here.  

Her own products consist primarily of items from companies with which she has a commission referral system in place (pretty lucrative deals, apparently). They often contain ingredients Hari has – with her usual random-scattershoot level of precision – warned against. We don’t think this is (primarily) because she is dishonest; she just doesn’t know enough about what she is saying to recognize the problem.

Some examples, courtesy of Mark Aaron Alsip:

I guess she could argue that the difference is that the money she earns from the products she advertise goes to her, and she is a good guy, whereas the rest goes to companies, which are only in it for the money and don’t really care about what the products they are marketing actually contain. But that would be a bad defense.

Diagnosis: “The Jenny McCarthy of nutrition” sums it up pretty well, but “the Fox News of dietary advice” may be even more accurate. The Food Babe doesn’t know, but neither does she know that she doesn’t know (a familiar phenomenon), and the result is a tragic density of errors; the Dunning-Kruger effect is strong with this one. And worst of all, her popularity is stunning – but then, her manner of combining simplicity, stupidity and scaremongering has always been popular among certain groups of people.


  1. I can't wait 'til the Food Babe Army finds this and begins commenting. There'll be more woo than you'll get in a Little Richard song!

  2. I was waiting for this nut to come up.

  3. Oh, no, but the food babe army will just discover we're all getting paid big bucks by Monsanto

  4. 6,000 members of BBFB?! Dude, it's nearly 10,000 now!

    Her army is shrinking finally and her attempts to out bullshit science are getting more detailed and nuanced.

    So she's evolved from plain old fashioned copypasta to a more subtle form realising, no doubt, that her followers don't realise (for example) that when we talk about our bodies detoxing naturally, we're not suggesting they can detox from heavy metal poisoning.

    Unlucky for Vani, there are plenty of people out there who do...

    1. I have updated the figure. Thanks.

  5. This just made my freaking week :-) seeing this fraud finally ensconced in these pages is a dream come true. bring on the fakebroad army they can call us shills for attacking their beloved faker.

  6. Wow. I feel (may I say) blessed to never have heard of her and her malarkey. The bigger question is why complete know nothings can so easily attract willful believers? Is Drumpftism the newest "thing" to describe illogical and self delusional behavior? As for "woo"...
    Fun read regardless.

  7. Or, the Ron Dumsfeld of nutrition..

    Known unknowns, unknown unknowns...etc.

  8. Lots of great stuff in this post!

    Unfortunately, the link in the section on Coca Cola and Pepsi seems to be broken.

  9. Lots of great stuff in this post!

    Unfortunately, the link in the section on Coca Cola and Pepsi seems to be broken.

  10. Bring on Food Babes sheeple to start getting offended! Brilliant article!

  11. As you said, not that it's problem (yum, fish bladder!) but Guinness at least does use isinglass in its fining process. It mostly stays in the vat, but there is a possibility of trace amounts making their way into the brew.

    1. I know. I stated that beer doesn't contain isinglass precisely because it isn't there in the finished product, but you are right: there might be trace amounts. Saying that beer contains isinglass is still false by most reasonable standards of evaluation.

    2. Some beers use carrageenan in lieu of insinglass for de-hazing beer, one reason for that is to make it suitable for vegans. Both items do the same thing, which is to precipitate solids that make beer hazy.
      Makes no difference as far as safety is concerned.

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