Battling the Food Babe
Feb. 9, 2016
by Donna Berry
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CHICAGO – The 400-page “The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House,” has been dubbed “the book the natural and organic food industries doesn’t want you to read.” More than a year in the making, the book, which was published in October 2015, was written by three communicators — Mark Alsip, Marc Draco and Kavin Senapathy — with a penchant for debunking unscientific media misinformation.
The book’s title makes reference to the self-proclaimed Food Babe, Vani Hari, a 30-something activist from Charlotte, North Carolina, who, according to the authors, uses scare tactics rather than science to make food companies change their ingredients and business practices. Hari started the Food Babe blog in 2011. There she attacks additives, chemicals and ingredients in food that she believes are harmful. In 2014, her web site garnered more than 54 million visits, with registered followers referring to themselves as the Food Babe Army.
The Fear Babe" is a systematic, science-based, yet comedic debunking of myriad popular myths about food, using the Food Babe’s claims as a framework to teach the reader critical thinking.
Food and agricultural scientist Kevin Folta of the Univ. of Florida wrote the forward to “The Fear Babe.” This is the same scientist who critiqued Hari’s response to food science students from the Institute of Food Technologists Student Association who wrote her a letter in January 2015 challenging her views on food, farming and health issues, in particular, chemicals and genetically modified organisms.
After reading the letter and Hari’s responses, Dr. Folta wrote on his blog: “I cannot think of someone so clueless that thinks she’s so clue-full. The bravado to manufacture completely wacky statements is beyond arrogance, and to criticize students who approach her from a scholarly evidence-based point shows she’s fully subscribed to her own deception.”
Food Business News, a sister publication of MEAT+POULTRY, interviewed the three authors of “The Fear Babe,” which was the brainchild of Draco, a native of the United Kingdom, who jokingly describes himself as a “brain pickled in a jar of glyphosate.” This is an herbicide anti-GMO activists love to hate. Here’s what the authors had to say about the book and Hari’s fallacies.
What motivated you to write this book?
Mark Alsip: As a degreed computer/math scientist with additional education in life sciences, I’ve worked alongside numerous doctors and pharmacists. I have a very good understanding of the importance in translating and communicating sound science. I’ve seen the communication gaps that exist and how people like Ms. Hari take advantage of the gap. I collaborated on this book to try to put an end to the nonsense.
Let’s not mince words. When you try to convince a chronic myeloid leukemia patient to throw away their Gleevec (a medication) in favor of turmeric or coffee enemas, you are directly endangering their lives. Interestingly, I’ve been criticized by Food Babe followers for daring to comment on health science issues even though technically I have the same degree as Ms. Hari.
Kavin Senapathy: As a mom of two young kids and a critical thinker — I am a science communicator — I’ve noticed how marketers use fear and guilt to exploit mothers in their consumer decisions. I know how to read a scientific study and how to differentiate between consensus and cherry picking of studies. I consult with the experts and rely on the weight of scientific evidence and expertise, as well as explain to readers what a study means and, importantly, what it doesn’t mean.
This is the major difference between communicators like me and fear mongers like Ms. Hari. I don’t believe this book is “about” Ms. Hari. Rather, it uses her, arguably one of the biggest misinformation vectors of our time, as a framework to debunk popular food myths and examine why they continue to proliferate.
Marc Draco: Growing up, nature fascinated me. My love of knowledge is insatiable. As a professional writer, I respect the fact-finding process and understand that it is an author’s responsibility to write truthful words that are scientifically sound. Fear spreads quickly. This is instinctive and covered in our book. If someone shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre, there will be a panic long before people figure out the hoax. Ms. Hari relies on this very effect to get her (false) messages out. In detailing this phenomenon, we hope to have given people a space to breathe and assess the threat.
The book has been in distribution for only a few months and is available throughout North America, Europe and Australia. How has it been received?
Senapathy: Business media coverage has been great. We’ve had stories in Huffington Post, Inverse.com, Forbes, Dairy Herd Management and Chicago Business Journal, to name a few. In addition, Thompson Reuters BioWorld listed it in its holiday gift guide and Scientific American chose the book as one of its recommended science books for its holiday gift guide.
Alsip: Mainstream media has yet to pick up on the book as enthusiastically as they’ve responded to Ms. Hari’s. There’s a lot of sex appeal in The Food Babe’s Way that appeals to common conspiracy theories about foods and commercial products. Our book, based on science, is not as glamorous of a read.
Vani Hari's book, "The Food Babe’s Way," appeals to common conspiracy theories about foods and commercial products.
We don’t promise you’re going to look years younger in 21 days, as Ms. Hari does on her book’s cover. Our book takes on some pretty serious issues, but we manage to include a great deal of humor to help readers identify. Some reviewers have self-identified as members of the medical community or food industry and they’ve given positive reviews. That doesn’t surprise me since we reached out to these communities whenever we had questions when writing the book.
To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Hari has never acknowledged the existence of the book. Before it went to press, we sent several registered letters telling her about the book, asking if she’d like to respond to any of the points we were making. Her husband signed for one of the letters, but no one ever replied.
In your opinion, what one Food Babe position is the most unbelievable?
Senapathy: It’s hard to pick one! For me, the most egregious is that GMOs are harmful. We explain in our book that a GMO has to be a living thing, otherwise it’s not an organism. Something that is derived from a GMO might or might not contain genes modified with molecular genetic engineering.
Ms. Hari uses the term quite liberally, and in fact, in her book, the technology is referenced more than 90 times, where she links it to almost every possible food or food ingredient. Consumers do not understand that GMOs are not something that can be scooped into a bowl and served.
Draco: She made her biggest splash with the “yoga mat chemical” by claiming that azodicarbonamide was in Subway’s bread. It’s not, of course. By the time the bread is baked, the azodicarbonamide has decomposed, whitening the flour and strengthening the gluten in order to create that wonderful light and fluffy texture we’re all familiar with.
Alsip: Most of the products sold by Food Babe have the same ingredients Ms. Hari says are dangerous. I’ve documented dozens so far. Consumers want to believe her. They take her word for it, instead of reading labels or understanding the science. I think her work is actually harmful. Scaring people away from vaccinations endangers public health. Frightening people from safe food technologies, such as pasteurization, isn’t much better.
Senapathy: Encouraging consumers to reduce unhealthy levels of sodium, sugar, bad fats, and fill up on fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and other wholesome choices is not what she’s about. Ms. Hari focuses on additives, GMOs and other perfectly fine ingredients in our complex food system. She only adds confusion to the consumer space.
Has her glass house been shattered?
Senapathy: Yes and no. Between this book and other evidence-based and research-backed critical articles, the mainstream media no longer takes her seriously. Still, she has enough of a consumer following that she does a bit of damage here and there.
Further, vanquishing charlatans like Ms. Hari is not, and cannot be our goal. I think of people like her as heads on a Misinformation Hydra. Cut one off; another grows back in its place. The most effective tactic is to arm people with the tools to spot misinformation, and evaluate whether information in the media or spouted by bloggers and so-called activists is sound. This is what our book aims to do.
Alsip: The battle against pseudoscience is a marathon, not a sprint. It would be naïve of us to think we could shatter her glass house so early after publication, or that one book would be enough to do all the work. It’s a very large house. I am proud that we are shaking its foundation. Awareness is growing. Certainly we aren’t going to sway the people who already believe in her. I look at our book like a vaccine, protecting people who haven’t already encountered the disease of unscientific food claims. That’s the audience we’re trying to reach.