Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Your teeth-grinder of the day: The Food Babe in The Atlantic

A profile of Vani Hari in The Atlantic that, in my opinion, is skeptical but still far, far too deferential to Ms. Hari: 
“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."
This makes me want to pound my head into the wall. Also, there's this (emphasis mine):
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?"
I'll be honest, I am not sure how a community should deal with someone who is more-or-less shameless (and has a business model that depends on that.)  


  1. Quod she: "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever."

    I'll just leave that one there without further comment.

  2. I'm particularly bemused at this quote:

    "Each side will lecture the other in the ways of science, even while both believe that everything they do is firmly rooted in science."

    Ahem, one side IS firmly rooted in science; that side IS SCIENCE.

  3. While I generally acknowledge that this is not a big deal on its own, I would like to point out the sheer number of endocrine disruptors to which we are chronically exposed, and that,like hormones, small quantities can have big effects. BHT? Lots of foo packaging. Triclosan? Antibacterial soap, toothpaste, etc. Vinyl chloride? Shower curtains, pipes. Perfluorooctanoates? Non-stick pans. BPA? Water bottles and canned food. Phthalates? Soda bottles, bottled water, etc. Isn't it interesting that obesity, diabetes, and early puberty are linked to sugary drinks? And isn't it even more interesting that diet sodas have the same effect? Did anyone think about the packaging? I'm not suggesting we run out and ban these things, but we probably should take a closer look.

  4. Hmmm, how to top it.... How about this. It has been shown that the blood level of chloroform significantly increases after taking a morning shower in drinking-quality water. Not an endocrine disruptor, but...

    Oh, an Nalgene makes those nice looking reusable BPA-free water bottles. They still need plasticizers and stabilizers, so BPA was replaced with BPS. Now BPS is suspect of similar estrogenic activity.

    All the above makes me think that CJ's search for a way to deal with Vani Hari is somewhat misguided. One doesn't "deal" with snake oil dealers. One needs to "deal" with the population, i.e. teach good risk management and mitigation practices. Others may call them "common sense", say the cure for a problem should be examined before application. Teaching that is not easy, but it can be done in a couple of generations.

    This may seem like an extreme view, but then so was the idea of public high school for all students when it was proposed in 1892.

    1. In the long run, I think you're right, i.e. a well-informed population will be resistant to all snake oil dealers.

      However, Hari is a particularly effective one with a particularly effective business model (i.e. targeting large corporations for shakedowns.)

    2. Does she get money from them? Or just stoke fears about them and then sell alternatives through her website?

    3. To thewonkychemist: she has sponsors (Nutiva is a big one, but there are others) and her website is chock full of affiliate links. Click on anything and she gets a click-through. She links to Amazon and if someone buys the product she gets a cut. She's paid to do various speaking engagements ($6,000 for a 1 hour talk at University of Florida, with no Q&A session). And she just released a book.

      So, yes, she gets money from them.

      She's also set up the website so Do Not Link and Wayback aren't allowed access. So people can't see her blog posts on air travel (she claimed the pilots kept the best air in the front of the plane to themselves and that the pure oxygen air was cut with nitrogen to save the airlines money), microwaves (she claimed that microwaves ruined water), and others. Her current post is in defense of FOIA requests against university faculty that do research on GMOs.

  5. Unfortunately, Joe Q Public will always prefer to listen to a cute babe like Vani Hari spouting utter drivel than some male Science person pointing out tedious but reality-based information.

    1. There are hot female and male scientists. Maybe should have them speaking to public and attract some eyeballs. :) Scientists are too reserved.

  6. The celebrity sales model is actually fairly new. At least it is a lot younger than public high schools. As technologies do, it will reach a peak and then fade. We will have something else to discuss.

    For now, maybe we need some non-male science person presenting ideas in non-tedious ways. As a tedious male I should know...

  7. Isn't it curious how industry is so willing to kowtow to idiots they absolutely know are wrong? A stack of lawsuits would convince Ms. Hari that maybe, just maybe, she should do a little more research before misleading her followers. I can only assume it's an active decision by shortsighted CEOs and shareholders to not go that route.

    1. Lawsuits would just lead to more negative publicity. You might win the battle but lose the war. Isinglass has been used as a fining agent for beer for decades, but do you really want to go to court over using fish bladder?

  8. Some time ago (OK, a LONG time ago) automakers made cars with expiration date just to force customers to buy more new cars. That was a bad move and it eventually backfired. Fast forward 30 years when Nalgene was making reasonably popular water bottles with BPA. If Nalgene recalled their BPA-laced bottles few people would trust them to get their next-gen BPA-free version. When scientists teamed with celebrities Nalgene must have been ecstatic that someone else took the spotlight. They allowed to be "extorted", replaced a few old-style bottles with the new-style bottles and gained an instant brand recognition of the "BPA-free" product.

    How do I know this story? In my household I observed these events:

    1. Appearance of Nalgene water bottles (with BPA). [Profit to Nalgene]
    2. Lots of noise about BPA ("Daaad, what is BPA, anyway?"). [Profit to celebrities]
    2a. My cellphone text bill went through the roof. [Profit to Cingular]
    3. Disappearance of Nalgene water bottles (with BPA). [Profit to recyclers???]
    4. Appearance of new Nalgene water bottles (with BPS). [Profit to Nalgene]
    5. Lots of noise about BPS ("Daaad, what is BPS, anyway?"). [Profit to celebrities]
    5a. New unlimited cell phone plan (prophylaxis). [Profit to AT&T]
    6. Disappearance of Nalgene water bottles (with BPS). [Profit to recyclers???]
    7. We have some new water bottles. I have refused to check the brand. [Profit to Whoever]
    8. And I still like my water in 90's vintage ceramic mug. [Extorted from Supelco]

    Now, which CEO was shortsighted here? Best I can tell at least three corporations and a bunch of celebrities benefited from this mayhem. Sure, you can blame it on me for fathering a bunch of artists. But then again, maybe it is not just me....

  9. I'm trying to wrap my head around her comment about acceptable levels of chemicals, and I'm really confused at how she's going after GRAS ingredients for more testing, but not the grandfathered-in pesticides used in organic farming.

    1. This could be the issue of focus and knowledge. I mean, narrow focus and lack of knowledge.

    2. I think it's more she gets paid to hock organic products. I'd be fascinated to see how much the companies she mentions positively pay for product placement. And for all her worries about BHT some of the products sold on her website contain it.

    3. She is sponsored by Nutiva, a retailer of organic products. She deletes all comments mentioning or suggesting organic food producers use pesticides and then bans the user who posted the comments.