How one woman mobilized an army against food additives, GMOs, and all else not “natural”
JAMES HAMBLINFEB 11 2015, 8:00 AM ET
Lauren Giordano/The Atlantic
“Cereals here in the United States contain a packaging ingredient called—God, I’m paranoid.” The natural-food advocate Vani Hari paused, laughing, looking at a man standing a few feet from our table in a Union Square coffee shop. He was huddled over his phone, just waiting for his coffee—or so it seemed. She lowered her voice, continuing, barely audible: “… called BHT.”
Hari looked in my blank eyes. I asked, “In the plastic bags?”
She nodded as if I’d just been let in on the secret to end all secrets. “And in the U.K., they can’t use it,” Hari, who is better known through her blogging, speaking, and TV appearances as “The Food Babe,” continued. “The purpose of it is to leach into the cereal, so it keeps it fresh. And, how many millions of kids are eating this every single day?”
“Why did the U.K. take it out?” I asked.
“They don’t allow it,” Hari said.
“They must have a reason.”
“There are studies that suggest it’s linked to cancer, tumors,” she said. “It’s an endocrine-disrupting chemical.”
Such is the gist of many of the food-additive campaigns that Hari has undertaken: A chemical in the U.S. food supply is not allowed in other countries, so why is it being used here? Petition the food companies to take it out. Over the past three years, Hari has rapidly become one of the most popular voices on nutrition in mainstream media. She has lived the American dream: monetizing a lifestyle blog and quitting her job to write about what she’s eating and why.
Hari is now working on developing a TV show, and her first book, released yesterday, is bound to lead bestseller lists. The title, a mouthful, leaves little to the imagination: 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! It is more than just another ultra-simple diet plan, or a compendium of claims intended to provoke, devoid of nuance, though it is also those things. (“Could an apple be more fattening than a hot fudge sundae? Quite possibly, especially if you consider the exposure and accumulation of pesticides over time in the body.”)
The book also offers the origin story of The Food Babe—how she left her job as a financial consultant and, despite no training in human metabolism, toxicology, or environmental science, became an unintentionally influential figure in public health. The book does little to address that she has also drawn the ire of many scientists who believe her claims are inaccurate or even dangerous. But Vani Hari did not intend to attract attention on the scale that she has. Her crusade began simply enough, with her own health issues, and the recovery that ensued after she discovered an all-natural approach to life. “Everything I had been putting in my body,” she writes in the book, “was either made from something out of a chemical factory, sprayed with chemicals, or genetically modified to make companies richer and me sicker.”
Hari’s secrecy when we met in New York was not because the story of butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) was a particularly hot one. The additive has been widely used in cereal packaging for many years. BHT has to be listed as an ingredient on food labels, and some consumer-protection advocates like the Environmental Working Group have advised people to avoid it when possible. BHT is not a listed carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, but at high levels of exposure, rats have been found to develop lung and liver tumors, as well as problems with motor skills. These issues have not proven themselves to be relevant to humans, so the Food and Drug Administration classifies the chemical “Generally Recognized as Safe.”
Rather, Hari had explained that her secrecy was because, five days after we met, she was going to launch a campaign imploring her legion of followers (dubbed “The Food Babe Army”) to demand that General Mills and Kellogg’s stop usingBHT. She made me swear that I wouldn’t break the news in advance. I swore. And five days later, Hari posted a petition on her widely read blog FoodBabe.com, and pushed it to her 900,000-plus Facebook followers. Within a few hours, the petition had garnered more than 17,000 signatures. By the end of the day, last Thursday, Hari had published a press release saying that General Mills and Kellogg’s had announced that they were going to phase out BHT.
“There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”
She called it “a giant victory for the Food Babe Army.” (General Mills’ brand manager said the company was “already well down the path of removing [BHT],” and that the petition played no role in that.) In either case, this is far from the first victory to Hari’s name. Since 2012, she has been leading campaigns demanding that food manufacturers remove ingredients that concern her, however remote the odds of serious danger. In March 2013, shesuccessfully implored Kraft to remove one of the chemical dyes that gave its macaroni and cheese that classic yellow-orange glow—because, Hari writes in the book, “at least one study” suggested a correlation between the chemical (yellow 5) and hyperactive behavior. Before that, her blogging and advocacy led to changes by Chipotle and Chick-fil-A, among others.
“I never gave permission for my body to be used as a toxic-waste dump or a science experiment,” Hari writes in the book, blaming the food industry for said use. “You’d think our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would protect us from all of this, wouldn’t you? Hell, no. They’re part of the problem.” Her stance on food additives is an absolute one: “There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”
Toxicologists the world over dispute that with the fundamental adage “The dose makes the poison.” Any substance is toxic at high enough quantities. Even something as banal as carbon dioxide can asphyxiate a person. And, similarly, almost anything is benign at low enough quantities. These are things that Hari knows but gives little due, sticking instead to the messages that are most visceral. She escalates the concerns raised by possible associations to concrete, actionable fear. Chapter One, titled “You’ve Been Duped,” sums up the most divisive elements of her ideology:
Every bite of food that passes through our lips, and every glass of water we drink, are potential sources of toxic chemicals, including pesticide residue, preservatives, artificial flavors and colorings, addicting sugars and fats, genetically modified organisms, and more. These toxins can travel to, and settle into, all the organs of your body, particularly the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs—and do great damage. Scientists are now blaming chemical-ridden food for the dramatic rise in obesity, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, infertility, dementia, mental illness, and more.
Most of the scientists who have spoken on Hari’s work, though, are less than supportive of that sweeping message. Rather, her work has drawn ardent criticism, primarily from a vocal contingent of academic researchers and doctors, who accuse her, in no uncertain terms, of fear-mongering and profiteering. They say that she invokes science when it is convenient, as in the passage above, but demonizes it when it is not—as in her blanket case against any and all genetically modified food. Last month, NPR ran a critique of Hari’s work, quoting several of her outspoken detractors. Science writer Kavin Senapathy, for one, captured the concerns of many in saying that Hari “exploits the scientific ignorance of her followers.” Others, including neurologist Steven Novella, have said that she is to food what Jenny McCarthy is to vaccines.
“The Web is cluttered with people who really have no idea what they are talking about giving advice as if it were authoritative,” Novella wrote in a blog post. “Often that advice is colored by either an ideological or commercial interest. The Food Babe is now the poster child for this phenomenon.” NPR also quoted oncologist David Gorski, who has called Hari “a seemingly-never-ending font of misinformation and fear-mongering about food ingredients, particularly any ingredient with a scary, ‘chemically’-sounding name.”
The deferential language of careful science, unfortunately, lends itself to little influence on the emotion-laden Internet.
In recent months the attacks have escalated, and Hari has mobilized her army for war. Her response to many detractors is a simple and effective charge of corruption: Those who criticize her work are doing so because of ties to the food industry. Rebutting the NPR article, Hari addressed her followers with an impassioned response, opening with a quote she attributes to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” (If the Gandhi invocation feels a little self-aggrandizing, compare it to the book’s forward, in which 10-Day Detox Diet author Mark Hyman likens Hari’s work to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.) That was followed by more than 5,000 words ofresponses to her critics, including some humility—”I’ll admit it. My microwave blog post was not my most impressive piece of work”—all the while imploring her army to stand by her side in these trying times.
Illustrating the depth of what Hari endures, the post also includes images of some of the most hateful vitriol she has received from various dark corners of social media, complete with threats of rape and entreaties to kill herself.
“I’m getting attacked every day with a death threat,” she told me. When it first started, the criticism and negativity dissuaded her in her work. Now, she explained, it fuels her. It is becoming part of her identity as a crusader. She implores her followers to join the battle, to resist the influence of the food-industry-fueled opposition.
Hari is a paragon of opportunism in that way, turning criticism in her favor, incorporating it as part of her outsider identity. Her critics are part of an establishment trying to suppress the truths she holds, the truths they don’t want you to hear. This week, Hari braced her fans on Facebook for the release of her book: “The #FoodBabeWay is hitting stores everywhere on Tuesday and I’m scared to death. The Food Industry is not going to be happy, they are going to fight back with their detractors leaving dishonest reviews and try to take me down any chance they get. … ” The post generated more than 9,000 likes. In the same way, she opens the book by turning her lack of scientific training into a point in her favor: The establishment is the problem, and she is its antithesis. She is at once the victim and the hero.
“What’s really concerning to me is that the majority of the medical establishment, including registered dietitians, have some sort of industry tie,” she told me. “It’s entrenched. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the corruption. And to talk about it in a way that people understand.”
I asked her about that positioning, as the relatable underdog-outsider going against the medically trained elitists. “It wasn’t intentional,” she said. “This just isn’t stuff that you have to be a doctor or scientist to understand, and the fact that they’re telling you that, there’s a problem with that. That you have to be a food scientist in order to understand what these chemicals do in your body. Not really.”
Nutrition and human metabolism are among the most complex and consequential disciplines in the health sciences, but sentiment like Hari’s is not at all rare, evidenced by the many celebrities who feel qualified to write their own weight-loss books. They sell well, at least in part because people who are not scientists tend to be better at using evocative language and less married to conservative “may be related to”-type caveats; the scientific establishment that guardedly posits potential correlations, and ends every statement with “more studies are needed.” The deferential language of careful science, unfortunately, lends itself to little influence on the emotion-laden mainstream Internet.
Back in 2011, a public-health program at the University of California, Berkeleyadvised consumers about the cereal-bag chemical: “The nutritional benefits of, say, a whole grain cereal with the additives outweigh any risk. But because [BHT’s] health effects are still unclear, limit how much you consume.” Alas, the staid article did not lead to the removal of these chemicals from the food supply. That’s where one needs a Food Babe.
Hari is also part of an ongoing, escalating challenge to the identities of academics as gatekeepers of knowledge. The role of celebrity in giving public-health advice is not unique to the Internet era; Jane Fonda was the fitness expert of a VHS generation. But the idea of a lone consultant becoming, in three short years, more influential than entire university departments of Ph.D.s, is indicative of a new level of potential for celebrity in health messaging.
“And that’s the problem that we have: too many moderate people.”
“I wanted the hashtag to be #CerealKiller, but people talked me out of that,” Hari said, laughing but not unserious. I told her, as a writer who not-infrequently covers food and nutrition, that I worry about making people freak out when they shouldn’t. Toxic contamination of the food supply is an incendiary topic, and telling people they’ve been poisoning themselves or their kids (however innocently) can be a serious burden.
“And that’s the problem that we have: too many moderate people,” she said. “We need someone demanding change.”
NPR posited that its readers cannot simply ignore Hari, because her reach is growing. She wrote an op-ed about her success, and the widespread misuse of the term natural, for The New York Times. Hari is on track to become the next Dr. Oz-level health-media personality. She has already been a guest on the embattled doctor’s daytime-television extravaganza, during the macaroni-and-cheese crusades. By the end of the campaign, the petition to remove yellow 5 had almost 250,000 signatures. She’s clearly speaking to people in a way that resonates. Analytically-minded people, her scientist critics among them, often with big health ideas of their own, might do well to understand why and how these messages work. Or, as Hari phrases it, as a challenge: “People chastise me for being too simplistic, but it’s like, okay, how are you getting through to people?”