Let me preface this by saying that, while I don’t subscribe to a particular diet (every diet claims to be the key to good health, but the only things any of them can agree on seem to be that everyone should maybe drink more water and eat half an avocado every day or so), I am and have always been a huge proponent of eating organic, minimally processed foods. I have also long been in favor of GMO labeling, because I don’t feel that the potential long-term impact of transgenic product had been adequately assessed before introducing it into the environment and food supply. I don’t think all GMOs are inherently evil, but consumers should have the ability to make educated choices about what they eat.
I also have a chemistry background– I pursued biotech until I developed ethical qualms about the career options it presented to me, at which point I opted to work for an environmental chem lab instead. It involved testing a lot of soil and water samples for contaminants.
For what it’s worth, I also have a chronic health condition that requites me to monitor my body for often minute signs that my diet needs more of a whole host of things– potassium, sodium, magnesium, bicarbonate– while getting regular blood tests to make sure that my diet is supplying enough so I won’t need supplementation.
Tl;dr: I’m pretty hugely into sustainability. And kind of familiar with food. And chemicals.
This is all to say that I should, theoretically, fit right in the Food Babe’s audience. I care about what I eat, and I have enough knowledge to be able to get what she’s saying re: organic foods, GMOs, and chemicals. That said, these are also reasons why I feel she is doing GMO labeling and minimally processed, natural foods an enormous disservice.
Vani Hari, the Food Babe, turned her blog into an “empire” according to Forbes. It’s probably not hard to see why– is there honestly anyone who thinks food should be lower in quality? Unfortunately I have to agree with this article on Business Insider. Hari’s means of spreading her message are irresponsible pseudoscience, at best. Considering that one of, it not the, biggest obstacle GMO labeling initiatives face is the deliberate attempt to paint supporters as chem-phobic, anti-science Luddites, Hari’s “empire” may actually end up setting back some of the very goals she purports to be striving for.
I’m reminded of a facebook conversation I witnessed where someone claimed that their yogurt didn’t contain phosphorus because it was organic. Or a Tumblr post showing the chemical formulas of compounds like vanillin and cinnamaldehyde, accompanied by a complaint about “using these chemicals instead of the real thing.” Or fears about fluoride among a group of people who happily drink black tea and eat spinach. Or the number of skincare products labeled as “paraben-free” that still contain mango, strawberry, or blueberry. These are the byproducts of the misinformation inherent in the kind of facile snippets that are Hari’s bread and butter– “If you can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t belong in your food!”
By this logic, I could eat all of the totally pronounceable tri-plumbic arsenate my little heart desires. Or, conversely, I should be avoiding chemicals like the potassium bicarbonate (found in, among other things, spinach and potatoes) that helps keep me away from an electrolyte imbalance or chloride acidosis. Only I can’t actually do either of those things, because that isn’t how anything works.
Not only are the Food Babe’s statements intellectually dishonest, they’re oversimplified to the point of undervaluing the intelligence of her audience. By treating “chemicals” as an epithet that should inspire fear, she manages to both insult and mislead the people she’s making money off of.
One could make the argument that a relatively simple message is needed if it’s going to reach far and wide and gain the kind of support and clout that the Food Babe empire has, and isn’t that good enough? It might be excusable, if it wasn’t for the Food Babe’s policy of “Delete Everything” when she’s confronted with a particularly egregious error (like claiming that airlines spray oncoming passengers with pesticide). There are no retractions, no attempts to better inform her audience or even acknowledge that she may have spoken in error. As the Business Insider article points out, those things would damage her brand– and isn’t that what’s really important?
A pretty face with a brand based on pushing chemphobic pseudoscience does not create an educated consumer base empowered to make healthy decisions. Vani Hari needs to do better. A lot better.