Self-appointed experts

NPR did a blog post about Vani Hari aka “Food Babe” the other day.

…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,, 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.

But if you’re going to pay attention to someone’s food investigations, you want it to be someone who knows the subject, or at least knows how to ask people who know the subject. Hari isn’t that sort of someone.

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.

Like that. That’s not useful.

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 Observerasked 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.

It’s kind of the same principle as rewiring. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rewiring Principle. It states that when you decide you need to update the electrical wiring in your house, you don’t ask someone random to do it for you, you find a licensed electrician who knows how to do wiring in such a way that it won’t burst into flames some night while you’re asleep.

So why not simply ignore Hari? Because her reach is growing: Last month her op-edwas 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.

I want the licensed electrician every time.


  1. Athywren; Kitty Wrangler says

    Hmm… much as I understand why some people are wary about the idea that there might be chemicals in their food, I’m always driven to point out that their common table salt contains chlorine – the stuff used as a vicious weapon in the first world war, and used in several terrorist attacks since. And yet, when you’re consuming reasonable amounts, you’re absolutely fine with it.

  2. Funny Diva says

    Athywren: Kitty Wrangler

    well, yeah, that’s basic chemistry. Sodium chloride (table salt) is NOT the same thing as Chlorine Gas…even if the element Chlorine is present in both. (as you’re no doubt well aware!)
    In chemistry as in life/culture: context flipping matters.

    I have a deep loathing and contempt for the type of scientifically ignorant alarmist typified by Ms Hari…

  3. Anthony K says

    It’s kind of the same principle as rewiring. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rewiring Principle. It states that when you decide you need to update the electrical wiring in your house, you don’t ask someone random to do it for you, you find a licensed electrician who knows how to do wiring in such a way that it won’t burst into flames some night while you’re asleep.

    You mean someone in the pocket of Big Voltage? Fuck that. When I rewired my house, I did it with hand-crafted artisan copper and natural rubber wire that I drew myself. That’s how my homesteading grandparents hooked up their PS3 and HDTV, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. (Nothing says home for the holidays like the smell of insulation fire wafting from between the wallboards.)

  4. canonicalkoi says

    Who wants to be the one to tell her they use “dirt” (diatomaceous earth) in clearing wine? That ought to make her head explode. And how on earth can you “investigate” something you know nothing about? That’d be like me doing “investigative reporting” about soccer. Or metallurgy. If you know nothing about a subject, how can you object to the way it’s done?

  5. says

    You mean someone in the pocket of Big Voltage?

    Who have paid off all the politicians to support draconian “building codes” just to keep us “natural wirers” from enjoying electricity in our homes that isn’t tainted with the dangerous positrons in that “corporate copper”!

  6. Trebuchet says

    She’s also the dodo who freaked out about the airlines diluting cabin air with up to 50% nitrogen.

  7. komarov says

    Re: Athywren; Kitty Wrangler (#1) and Funny Diva (#2):

    I’d also like to note that the sodium does not burst into flames or produce hydrogen when you put salt in the pot. Which is a shame, really. I’d be much more interested in cooking if it involved clouds of chlorine, explosive gases and the pyrotechnics that go with Group I metals in water. Cooking pasta can be ever so dull. 🙂

    Regarding things that are “bad for you” in general, I wonder if Hari and like-minded people are aware of all those terrible radionuclides that surround us.
    14C may not be common, but it is ubiquitous. Even now there is some inside you, decaying, irradiating you. And there are lots of others. They are in your food, your homes – yes, inside the very walls of your safe space – and even in the air you breathe. Heck, that smoke detector up on the ceiling, your mostly silent protector, is loaded with radioisotopes just to make it work. Oh, and by the way, the sun, the entirety of the cosmos and the planet beneath your feet are all trying to kill you with deadly radiation, too. But not to worry, the planet’s magnetic field and a (toxic) ozone layer protect you from most of the really bad stuff. Except we blew a hole into the ozone layer just to give all that harmful UV-radiation a sporting chance.

    Okay, possibly a tad too mean. I do feel for people who are taken in by such claims and are made to worry about the most harmless things. Such experts throw out ‘bad chemicals’ so often that it’s a small miracle you don’t get people crowding the aisles in the supermarket while they all very carefully inspect the ingredient list of every little package they pick up. Possibly with a smartphone in hand showing the lastest ‘health scare’.
    Perhaps we could just alternate between “hydrated anything” and “dehydrated anything”, switching over about once a month. It’ll save the fearmongers a lot of writing and their victims a lot of time. It’s easy to remember, easy to spot and at least as sensible as some of the more extreme things that people have come up with.

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    It’s kind of the same principle as rewiring. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rewiring Principle. It states that when you decide you need to update the electrical wiring in your house, you don’t ask someone random to do it for you, you find a licensed electrician who knows how to do wiring in such a way that it won’t burst into flames some night while you’re asleep.

    Okay! Since YOU brought this up, I have a cautionary tale to share. In Natchez, MS, there is this crazy bastard who owns an antebellum mansion. He refuses to sell because he doesn’t want his siblings getting their dirty little hands on it, but he lives in 2+ hours away Jackson (or somewhere) and has completely neglected the property: (More pictures to the left at that site.)

    Dude won’t even be arsed to board up the doors and windows O_O

    EXCEPT for that time he decided to update the electrical wiring in the mansion himself O_O Here’s how it turned out:

    It’s called “demolition by neglect”, people. Epic dumbassery is another term for it.

  9. Dave Ricks says

    This thread made me look up Al Franken’s 1979 spoof of Monsanto’s “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible”

    You know, these days, a lot of people think that anything chemical is bad! And anything natural is good! Now, what these people forget is that nature IS chemical! Now, one of the reasons I think people have this prejudice against chemistry, is that it was such a difficult subject in school! I admit it myself. That’s why I majored in Public Relations! Believe me, I’m a lot better at communicating with people than I am at figuring out complicated equations and formulas! Now, the other day, I was eating lunch at a chemical factory when one of the lab scientists said to me, “Jack, you want some sodium chloride on your baked potato?” And I said, “Whoa! Keep your lab chemicals away from my food!” And he said, “Sodium chloride: NaCl!” And I said, “I don’t care what you call it, I don’t want any sodium chloride near my potato!” Well, you know what sodium chloride turned out to be? Simple table salt! Pretty harmless! Well, no sooner is that amusing episode over, when I say, “Boy, my soup sure is hot!” And this chemist says, “Why don’t you put some dihydrogen oxide in it?” And I said, “Dihydrogen oxide? Sounds pretty ominous to me!” And he said, “Dihydrogen oxide: H₂O!” Well, even I know what H₂O is! Simple water. Well, I guess eating would be kind of boring without old NaCl, and life would be pretty near impossible without dihydrogen oxide. So you see — without chemicals, life would be boring AND impossible!

  10. jenniferphillips says

    Interesting development here: a blogger went through some of Food Babe’s posts and found some evidence of plagiarism (and other bits that if not over the line, borrow heavily from unattributed sources). Analysis of that blog is here, including a response from Food Babe.

    Sadly, as much genuine criticism as she deserves, there are disappointingly many detractors who are ‘framing’ their criticism in sexist and misogynistic terms–all the way to that familiar rape and death imagery that so many women on the internet must endure.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Oh dear, it sounds like another a bad case of the Gillian McKeiths. (Or to give her her full medical title – Gillian McKeith (this joke (c) actual proper Doctor Ben Goldacre, every single public presentation he’s ever done, but hey, indulge him, it’s a good gag)). Gillian McKeith, quack “nutritionist”, explicitly made her living trading partly on her authority as a “doctor”, and was rightly attacked on that basis by an actual doctor. She didn’t like it.

    disappointingly many detractors […]are ‘framing’ their criticism in sexist and misogynistic terms

    The self-styled “Food Babe” is explicitly trading on her feminine sexual attractiveness. The very word “Babe” is itself sexist and infantilising – any man who addressed a woman thus would be described as misogynist. Doesn’t excuse death/rape threats, obviously – but if you’re going to literally sell yourself in sexist and misogynist terms, then criticism in those terms is not merely to be expected, it is deserved.

  12. Kevin Kehres says

    To heck with fish bladders…

    Beer has dihydrogen oxide in it! Run away!!! Scurry!!! Flee!!!!

  13. says

    sonof @ 14 – No it isn’t.

    What a shitty way of looking at it. It’s as if “criticism in sexist and misogynist terms” is some useful tool and thus is fine to use as long as the object has provided an excuse. Nobody deserves misogyny.

  14. Trebuchet says

    @14: I suspect, or rather hope, that the “food babe” is a little less obsessed with poop than McKeith.

  15. jenniferphillips says

    Here’s another look at the misogynistic hate she’s getting. I’ve seen some of the comments firsthand. I’ve seen the science-advocacy groups crack down on these types of comments on Facebook and subsequently get ridiculous pushback for bringing ‘feminism’ into the discussion. It should not surprise you in the lease that some of the commenters are, shall we say, old hands at this.

  16. jenniferphillips says

    I don’t understand the rigid, sexualized connotation being attached to the pet name ‘babe’. As far as diminutives go, it’s much more gender neutral than some. “Food Babe” was her husband’s nickname for her when she became interested in nutrition and food safety. My good friend/ colleague and I have adopted the word ‘babe’ to mean ‘an awesome woman who gets shit done’. It’s not the universal linguistic equivalent of the short skirt. Even if it were, it still wouldn’t excuse the gendered insults and threats she is receiving, but the gazillion comments of ‘she shouldn’t have called herself ‘babe’ if she didn’t want to be sexually objectified’ are not fucking helping.

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