In an age when consumers have become increasingly suspicious of processed food, the Internet has become a powerful platform for activists who want to hold Big Food accountable.
One of the highest-profile of these new food crusaders is Vani Hari, better known by her online moniker, Food Babe. Among her victories: a petition that nudged Kraft to drop the artificial orange color from its mac and cheese, and another one that helped get Subway to do away with the common bread additive azodicarbonamide — which Hari noted was also used in making yoga mats.
To followers on her website and on social media, who are known as the Food Babe Army, Hari is a hero. And with a book and TV development deal in the works, her platform is about to get a lot bigger.
But as her profile grows, so too do the criticisms of her approach. Detractors, many of them academics, say she stokes unfounded fears about what's in our food to garner publicity. Steve Novella, a Yale neuroscientist and prominent pseudoscience warrior, among others, has dubbed Hari the "Jenny McCarthy of food" after the celebrity known for championing thoroughly debunked claims that vaccines cause autism.
Hari is a self-styled consumer advocate and adviser on healthful eating. Her website, FoodBabe.com, offers recipes, tips for nutritious dining while traveling, and, for $17.99 a month, "eating guides" that include recipes, meal calendars and shopping lists. But she's best-known for her food investigations, frequently shared on social media — posts in which she flags what she deems to be questionable ingredients.
Take, for example, Hari's campaign urging beer-makers to reveal the ingredients in their brews. Among the ingredients that concerned Hari was propylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze. But, as cancer surgeon and blogger David Gorski writes, the product used in some beers to stabilize foam is actually propylene glycol alginate — which is derived from kelp. "It is not the same chemical as propylene glycol, not even close. It is not antifreeze," he wrote.
Another beer ingredient that got Hari up in arms? Isinglass, or dried fish swim bladders, which may sound, well, fishy, but has been used to clarify beers for well over a century. Such mix-ups prompted historian Maureen Ogle, the author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, to dissect Hari's claims, point by point, in a post on her site titled "What's In YOUR Beer? Or, The Dangers of Dumbassery."
Hari's approach capitalizes on growing consumer distrust of both Big Food companies and their unfamiliar, industrial-sounding ingredients, and of regulators' ability to oversee them effectively. Some of these chemicals and additives may indeed be questionable, but food scientists would argue that nearly all are safe. So why do food companies respond to her demands, if they have nothing to hide?
Because, Gorski writes, "companies live and die by public perception. It's far easier to give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public."
Critics note that Hari lacks credentials in nutrition or food science; she's a former consultant who studied computer science. Hari declined to be interviewed for this story; through her publicist, she told NPR she isn't speaking to media until her new book is released in February. But when the Charlotte Observer asked her about such criticisms, Hari answered, "I've never claimed to be a nutritionist. I'm an investigator."
But that lack of training often leads her to misinterpret peer-reviewed research and technical details about food chemistry, nutrition and health, says Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida and vocal online critic of Hari. "She really conflates the science," he tells The Salt.
"If anything, she's created more confusion about food, more confusion about the role of chemicals and additives," Folta says.
More recently, as we've reported, Hari's attacks on the lack of pumpkin in Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice lattes prompted the Institute of Food Technologists to release a video explaining the chemicals that replicate that squash flavor in a cup of Joe.
"What she does is exploit the scientific ignorance and fear of her followers," says Kavin Senapathy, an anti-pseudoscience blogger who frequently challenges the assertions in Hari's posts. "And most of us are in agreement that we simply can't accept that."
Senapathy and other online critics, using parody names like Science Babe, Chow Babe and Food Hunk, have taken to Twitter and Facebook in an organized effort to engage with Hari's followers and counter her scientific claims.
So why not simply ignore Hari? Because her reach is growing: Last month her op-ed was featured in The New York Times' Room for Debate section. In October, Experience Life magazine, a health and fitness publication, featured her on its cover. That decision prompted critics to bombard the magazine's Amazon page with single-star reviews for putting "an uneducated fearmonger" on its cover.
And this fall, Hari addressed the University of Florida as part of a lecture series for freshmen on "The Good Food Revolution." That talk prompted Folta to write a scathing blog post about her visit in which he accused her of being "afraid of science and intellectual engagement."
He was angry that her talk didn't include a question and answer period in which he could challenge her on some of her scientific assertions. "When you bring in a self-appointed expert, a celebrity more than a scientific figure, it does have the effect of undoing the science we are trying to instill in our students," Folta told me.
Ultimately, Folta says, he thinks Hari's heart is in the right place. "She does seem to come from an honest intention of wanting people to think about good food choices and health." But, he says, "it's a question of science."
Other critics are less generous in their assessment, noting that Hari isn't just raising the alarm about food additives. Through affiliated marketing partnerships, she is also making money by referring her website readers to organic and non-GMO food brands, as Ad Age has reported. Indeed, the Food Babe brand, a registered LLC, has become a full-time job for Hari, who also earns fees from speaking appearances.
"Unfortunately, the Web is cluttered with people who really have no idea what they are talking about giving advice as if it were authoritative, and often that advice is colored by either an ideological agenda or a commercial interest," Yale's Novella writes on his blog. "The Food Babe is now the poster child for this phenomenon."
Hari has brushed off such questions about her motivations and scientific proficiency. "I know that I'm doing the right thing," she told the Observer. "I'm trying to help people understand things that no one else has spoken out about."
But the message of Hari's campaigns boils down to "this toxic secret thing they are putting in my food is making me [sick]," says John Coupland, a food scientist at Penn State, in an email to The Salt.
"I personally think this is largely a distraction from more real concerns" about the food system, says Coupland. Problems, he says, like advertising aimed at kids, the environmental impacts of food production, food waste and hunger.