The Food Babe and other nonsense


Food BabeShe’s been called the “Jenny McCarthy of food.” That’s not a compliment and should warn anyone with half a brain to beware of her. She’s a New Age wingnut helping turn the public from science to superstition.

She’s also been described as the “latest quack making a name for herself on the Internet by peddling pseudoscience” and a “meme terrorist.”

Meet “Food babe” Vani Hari. The latest darling of an increasingly lame and ill-educated national media that focuses on spectacle and controversy. She’s an attention-seeker who knows how to work the media and get coverage and ratchet herself to celebrity status through cunningly techniques.

Forbes magazine writer, Trevor Butterworth noted that her methods never get the headlines, only her allegations, and rebuttals and corrections often get ignored:

Unfortunately, this kind of clarification, where a blogger takes something commonplace and gives it a nefarious social media friendly twist to advance an agenda, did not make the Financial Times, Business Insider, USA Today, NBC News, and undoubtedly many more news stories that uncritically reported the Food Babe’s victory.

Cancer surgeon David Gorski wrote,

…her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. However, if you have any background in chemistry, much of what Hari is doing is almost painfully transparent, a veritable insult to one’s intelligence and training.

The Independent Women’s Forum says of Hari:

The Food Babe has one clear mission: to scare moms so bad that they stop buying all that convenient and reasonably priced food they’ve grown to love and which makes their lives a little easier. Because progress is your enemy, ladies!
She’s not asking much…just that you do your best to act more like her: eat only food produced by raw, whole ingredients that you cook yourself. Oh, but wait, it can’t be just any whole ingredients; they have to be organic and non-GMO. The evidence she provides to her readers that this strategy will lead to a healthier life? Exactly nothing.

The Neurologica Blog says:

The Foodbabe… wants to replace careful analysis and evidence with, “Yuk, that sounds weird.” She feels this is a superior process to that used by world organizations that go through the bother of having experts review scientific evidence.

I first learned about Hari from Facebook posts warning about “dangerous” and “secret” ingredients in beer. Like fish bladders and antifreeze.

Woah, I said to myself. This ain’t right. These aren’t dangerous chemicals.

I was a homebrew beer maker for a decade, and still make my own wine. Isinglass – made from fish bladders – has been used to clarify both for almost three centuries. Isinglass is a colourless, tasteless collagen – like gelatine – made from fish swim bladders. It is a flocculate, or fining agent, used at the end of the fermentation process to cause solids like yeast in the beer to settle on the bottle where they can be more easily removed removed, and allow the clear beer to be bottled. It’s approved for this use in dozens of countries. I used it myself many times over the last three decades.

It’s not harmful – centuries of use have shown that – and it’s no less a “natural” animal product than gelatin, since they are both made from collagen, or animal connecting tissue. Very little isinglass remains in the beer after its use. Vegans may object (I object to gelatin in yogurt since I don’t eat meat), but anyone who eats fish or meat won’t. Isinglass is also used to help wounds heal.

As the Smithsonian describes the process:

Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.

However, it is predominantly used by small and craft breweries making cask beers, not by the big companies which filter and pasteurize their high-volume beers (leading to the ubiquitous “fermented cardboard” flavour of most commercial beers). As Wikipedia tells us:

Non-cask beers that are destined for kegs, cans or bottles are often pasteurized and filtered. The yeast in these beers tends to settle to the bottom of the storage tank naturally, so the sediment from these beers can often be filtered without using isinglass. However, some breweries still use isinglass finings for non-cask beers, especially when attempting to repair bad batches.

ABC News reported:

Hari claims some beers contain additives like high-fructose corn syrup, stabilizers and artificial flavoring, which have been linked to obesity, allergies, hyperactivity and gastrointestinal problems. She also alleges that big brewers use unappetizing things like propylene glycol – a foaming ingredient found in airplane deicing liquid – and even use fish swim bladders during brewing for clarity… She also alleged that some beer makers use “chemically altered hop extract,” known as tetrahops, to add a bitter flavor and give it a longer shelf life.

Claims. Alleges. Linked to (without stating any research for that link). These mean she doesn’t know. And how could she? Beer makers are not required to list their ingredients, so at the best, she can only guess. Even ABC admits that,

The fact is no one but the manufacturer – not even Hari – knows for sure what’s in beer or what’s used to make it, because the federal government does not require companies to disclose their ingredients or brewing processes. Hari is on a mission to get more transparency in the beer industry.
Her point is that consumers just don’t know how their food and drink is made or what they put into their bodies.

Wait, she says antifreeze is in beer? It’s really propylene glycol she’s talking about, a product that is used in many things, including many animal treats, but it’s used in refrigeration in food processing plants because it’s a safe alternative to more effective but dangerous (poisonous) chemicals. It’s used in deicing because it’s biodegradable.

Ethylene glycol is used in car and engine antifreeze, nor propylene. Very different products: ethylene glycol is toxic.

But is it used in beer? No. Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone Brewing Company, tells us it’s not used in beer, but rather in the cooling systems used on the rooms, kegs and containers:

Propylene Glycol is a food grade substance used for external chilling systems in most breweries. It is a better, safer cooling agent than Ethylene Glycol, which is highly toxic. The only way propylene glycol could get into beer is by a leak in the cooling system. When I was at Anheuser-Busch, we tested our beers regularly to ensure that it was glycol-free. We also sampled and checked every glycol jacketed tank annually. I have heard of some beverages where small amounts glycol were added to add body or flavor, but I have not heard of this being done in beer.

Get that? Not in beer itself. Hari clearly doesn’t get it.But that wouldn’t be the first time.

Tetrahops, about which she shivers with fright, are simply an extract of hops – “derived from a pure resin CO2 extract of hops” –  used in beer because natural hops go “skunky” when exposed to light and ruin the beer. As one brewer describes them:

Tetra hops are hops or extracts of hops that have been treated so that the alpha acids are slightly different chemically. Tetra hops are so named because of the tetra iso alpha acids in the hops (usually the alpha acids isomerised in the same process to enable them to be added after the boil for fine bittering control). Tetra iso alpha acids do not have the group on the molecule which is effected by UV light to give the light-struck flavour effect. The big breweries use them because green or white bottles do not block UV light like brown bottles do (10% and 5% block, compared to about 90% for brown bottles). If Carlton Cold or Boags or Cascade used plain old hops for bittering, they would skunk real quick (5 minutes in the sun would do it, or several days in a fridge lit by a fluro tube). Basically, it’s a means of having a product in a marketable package that has a reasonable shelf life.

Hari also claims (again without proof) beers contain:

Natural Flavors (can come from anything natural including a beavers anal gland)

Steve Parkes, owner and lead instructor at the American Brewers Guild Brewing School, responds:

Beaver anal gland, aka Castoreum. Castoreum is used to mimic the flavor of vanilla, and raspberry and legal to use as a “Natural Flavoring.” It’s unlikely that many or any brewers use Castoreum. Only 300lb is used annually (harvested from dead beavers). Much of it is used to manufacture perfume. If the Food Babe uses Chanel, Lancomme and Givenchy, she’s probably dabbing beaver anal gland extract behind her ears daily. Castoreum itself is not specifically listed on the TTB’s list of approved ingredients; instead it’s a “natural” flavoring that can be added to beer.

As Wikipedia notes about castoreum, in part because it is expensive, consumption is minuscule compared to that of vanillin – an extract of the vanilla bean (2.6 million pounds annually).

Beer isn’t full of toxins: just because you can’t pronounce an ingredient or know what it’s used for doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. This site, by the way, is replete with brewmasters’ factual responses to Hari’s inaccurate and hyperbolic claims. Well worth reading for a good, balanced counterpoint (not to mention relieving you of any worry next time you pour yourself a lager…).

But hyperbole is what Hari is all about. Like most New Age harridans, she screeches so loudly it catches the attention of the media and through them it reaches the hard-of-thinking; the people convinced food and drug companies, and governments, are out to destroy their health and lives, to control their minds and poison their children.

I can hardly wait to see Hari expound on the veracity of chemtrails. That’s gotta come soon. Then onto crop circles, Atlantis and the New World Order. Mark my words, she will…

So why give this self-taught, uninformed attention-seeker free publicity if she has no proof? The IWF notes:

…what The Food Babe rarely reveals is that she isn’t even a nutritionist. Nor is she a toxicologist or a medical doctor. Yet she doles out nutrition, toxicological, and medical advice with the confidence of someone trained in all three areas.

Why are media outlets repeating her claims without investigating them? Especially when even a cursory look at her website shows she’s selling stuff and getting commissions for products based on her claims. Why doesn’t the media see her pecuniary interest as a motivating factor?

Major news networks like CNN and USA Today picked up the story and ran with it, pretty much citing these claims verbatim. It becomes much less interesting when you actually look into the details but the news and people like Vani make their living by fear mongering and sensationalizing pseudoscience.

Hari is a fount of misinformation. Read, for example her McCarthy-istic anti-vaccine rant in which she sums up a vaccine – one of the greatest medical advancements since the dawn of history as “…A bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of Cancers and Alzheimer [sic] disease over time.” Mark Crislip does a superb job of deconstructing her wild and spurious claims on Science-Based Medicine:

Only the multidose vials contain thimerisol and no flu vaccine, that’s no as in none, zero, zip, nil, nada, contains aluminum. So crediting those molecules as the reason vaccines increase the risk for Alzheimer’s (they don’t) is disingenuous at best. One would think a computer scientist could manage the Googles to find out the ingredients in the flu vaccine. It took me less than a minute.

Hari’s claims – and her entire New Age bunkum philosophy – have been debunked many times, on many sites. Criticial Examiner took her to task over claims about the safety of bleach used in flour:

To say we’re eating yoga mat material with Subway bread is complete hyperbole in order to draw a reaction from people. It’s like saying hydrogen is poisonous to humans, so don’t drink water.

Then there is her nonsensical, ooh-scary-technology rant about microwave ovens. Rebuttal on Hubpages. But the biggest proof that Hari is a flake, even among her New Age peers, is her belief in the magic water claptrap perpetuated by Dr. Emoto. Hari writes:

Last by (sic) not least, Dr. Masaru Emoto, who is famous for taking pictures of various types of waters and the crystals that they formed in the book called “Hidden Messages in Water,” found water that was microwaved did not form beautiful crystals – but instead formed crystals similar to those formed when exposed to negative thoughts or beliefs. If this is happening to just water – I can only imagine what a microwave is doing to the nutrients, energy of our food and to our bodies when we consume microwaved food. For the experiment pictured above, microwaved water produced a similar physical structure to when the words “satan” and “hitler” were repeatedly exposed to the water. This fact is probably too hokey for most people – but I wanted to include it because sometimes the things we can’t see with the naked eye or even fully comprehend could be the most powerful way to unlock spontaneous healing.

I wrote about the nutty Dr. Masaru Emoto in an early blog post. Dr. Emoto thinks you can hurt water’s feelings by shouting at it or calling it bad names. Which pretty much sets the bar for wackiness. But Hari believes him. This must colour all her claims.

Why do people share this stuff, repost and reprint without stopping to think about it? Why don’t people take 10 minutes to check out the claims and verify whether she is correct? Because that requires THINKING and thinking is hard. Apparently hardest for reporters at ABC, Financial Times, Business Insider, USA Today, NBC News and other national news media Hari has charmed into repeating her allegations without fact-checking them.

As Butterworth comments,

That the media should give The Food Babe a free pass as an expert or as a credible consumer watchdog is especially troubling when you look at some of her other claims, as recorded by the doctors at Science-Based Medicine.

Hari and her ilk are dangerous to both the public and to the companies she attacks. As Dr. Gorski writes:

Unfortunately, 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. And, make no mistake, blackmail is exactly what Vani Hari is about. (NOTE ADDED AFTER PUBLICATION: Forbes blogger Trevor Butterworth calls this sort of strategy “quackmail.” Damn. Another term, like “quackademic medicine,” that I wish I’d thought of. Meanwhile Jay Brooks calls it “yellow journalism,” which to me is being far to kind to the Food Babe, who has demonstrated her intolerance of dissent and outright intellectual dishonest time and time again. That’s why I think Tom Cizauskas is more accurate to refer to what the Food Babe does as “calumny.”)

Even people who side with Hari on many issues, take umbrage at her methods, her logic (or lack thereof) and her unsupported allegations. Food Riot Radio wrote about Hari’s campaign against food dyes in Kraft macaroni that it’s great for generating attention but not particularly healthy or even useful:

Even if their petition is successful, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is still going to be junk food. Are these real-food-movement revolutionaries suggesting we should eat highly processed, nutritionally deficient, toxic food just because the artificial food coloring has been removed? What about the other non-food ingredients in the little blue box? After they get the food coloring removed, what next? Are they going to petition that Kraft remove other dangerous additives like calcium phosphate, sodium phosphate, sodium tripolyphosphate and all the synthetic vitamins? After that, are they going to demand the company use real cheese? How about rBGH and rBST-free cheese? Shouldn’t they also demand the cheese be fresh, not powdered, and come from grass-fed cows? And what about the pasta? Shouldn’t it be whole-grain and organic? While they’re at it, they probably should request that it be soaked and sprouted.

While Lisa (Leake) and Vani depict Americans as helpless victims of food industrial complex, we’re not. Consumers still have the power to choose what they eat. It’s not like there aren’t alternatives at the grocery store. If you want processed foods, which are hard to digest and lacking nutrients, at least go for an organic brand.

To close, let me take a line from blogger Tom Cizauskas in his piece on the Food Babe’s misinformed claims:

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

(Or at least refer to the Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention when reading her nonsense.)
PS. While I’m okay with her crusade to get proper labelling and complete ingredient lists on all food products, it’s her sky-is-falling scare tactics, wild and unsupported allegations, emotionally-laden New Age codswallop, her lack of proper scientific training, knowledge, method, or technique I disagree with. Had she stuck to pushing for transparency, I would agree with her goals, but instead she is just another New Age quack leading the gullible path of pseudoscience and superstition.

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    ” The Food Babe has essentially made a career out of provoking irrational fear of ingredients with unsavory sources and with scary-sounding, long chemical names. Neither of these factors have anything to do with actual food safety, but they make it easy to scare the non-expert.

    Specifically this includes so-called “chemophobia” – which is the fear of chemicals. The problem with this “Food Babe”, chemophobic approach is that everything is chemicals. As the banana graphic above demonstrates, the formal chemical names even for everyday food molecules are long and unfamiliar to non-chemists.”

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  6. The Food Babe – a favourite wingnut among the oh-my-gosh-it’s-science-so-it-must-be-bad conspiracists – was dressed down in a right smart manner by Kavin Senapathy on Grounded Parents:

    It’s a very good read about the Food Babe’s latest (and mindless) campaign: her attack against Starbucks because she doesn’t like the lattes they serve.

    Starbucks has refused to cave in to her bullying tactics. Good for them. Senapathy writes:

    “If companies like Starbucks bow to unwarranted pressure, it will cause and propagate harmful stigma against advanced agricultural and biological technologies. Furthermore, it helps perpetuate the fallacy that organic methods are superior, whereas in fact organic farming cannot sustain the earth’s growing population on its own.”

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  8. Another good piece, this time from NPR, that continues to debunk this dangerous lunatic:

    “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.”

    And while we’re on the subject of food, let’s debunk another New Age myth: detoxifying yourself:

    Great quote:

    “Let’s be clear,” says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, “there are two types of detox: one is respectable and the other isn’t.” The respectable one, he says, is the medical treatment of people with life-threatening drug addictions. “The other is the word being hijacked by entrepreneurs, quacks and charlatans to sell a bogus treatment that allegedly detoxifies your body of toxins you’re supposed to have accumulated.”

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  10. Pingback: » Food Babe: A different kind of smart

  11. Another good piece on the Food Babe’s cult and message on Insufferable Intolerance:

    Snakeoil salespeople have been around for a very long time and they aren’t to be dismissed lightly. You may dismiss the claims that diluted bleach enemas can cure autism or chiropractors can cure fevers. You may scoff immediately at the idea that butter in your coffee can increase your IQ or that a coffee enema can treat illness. Do you laugh at the idea that ingesting Chlorophyll can oxygenate your blood or that you can turn the pH of your body more alkaline if you eat certain foods – if you’re scientifically trained, you should. How about yet another so-called hidden cancer cure? Or homeopathy, iridology or reflexology? It maybe easy for scientifically trained people to scoff at these ideas and debunk them but it isn’t easy for most people. Every person who successfully peddles pseudoscience is a smart individual who can sell even the most outrageous ideas and turn a profit.

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    “Over the last seven days, a roster of myth-busting nutrition studies were published showing probiotics are unnecessary, GMOs are harmless, and a gluten-free diet is a terrible idea unless you really need to be on it.”

    A bunch of New Age woo hoo got trashed by science this week.

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