A feminist mother and science advocate’s response to Vani Hari, the “Food Babe”

posted in: Commentary | 30

EogmuHn-_400x400Originally published on the Genetic Literacy Project.

Vani Hari, better known as “Food Babe,” is a self-proclaimed investigator of food and consumer advocate. Yet, some of her so-called investigations have been based in little to no evidence, while most of the rest of her claims are outright drivel. She has made her mark in an all-too-easy exploitation of public fear of the “unnatural,” distrust of establishment and love for fads.

As expected, her opposition has been growing. Scientists and skeptics have begun criticizing Hari’s assertions. Within the last several months, the frequency of articles, blog posts and social media opposition has skyrocketed.

I’m a mother and science writer, and I’ve been critical of Hari’s work over the last several months. I am not a scientist by the traditional definition. I don’t have a PhD., nor have I authored peer-reviewed research publications. Still, I have a unique perspective afforded by the intersection of a sound working knowledge of genomics, genetics, and bioinformatics. I’ve garnered this knowledge being raised by a molecular biologist, working for a small private-sector genomics R&D company, and via coursework and extensive reading on the subject.

In addition to writing on the subjects of feminism, atheism, and biotechnology in agriculture and medicine, I took on the position of spokesperson for Chow Babe, an open social media critic of Food Babe. While Chow Babe is a parody of Food Babe, she has gained a following of nearly ten thousand people sharing one common notion – that Vani Hari is a charlatan without evidence for her propaganda.

Maria Godoy of NPR’s “The Salt” took notice and contacted me and a few scientists to discuss scientific backlash against Food Babe. Considering that NPR is a renowned and reputable organization, I gladly obliged. Over the weekend–shortly after the piece was published and after declining to be interviewed for the NPR piece–Food Babe lashed out at her critics.

Food Babe refers to me as follows (and yes, I’ll explain why I know she’s talking about me specifically):

“Seemingly reputable news organizations like NPR (in a blog post titled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out”) even linked to the hate groups – quoting one of their spokespeople and repeated their ridiculous and biased messages as if they have any merit.”

I am the only one quoted in the NPR piece with the title of “spokesperson.” (For more information, see Chow Babe’s post describing how I became her spokesperson in late October.) Therefore, it’s obvious that Food Babe is referring to me. As with all of the individuals she criticizes in her response, she omits mentioning me by name for fear of having to engage in extensive discourse. Also, it’s likely that she’s been advised to refrain from naming her foes to avoid liability.

Although this isn’t the first letter I’ve written to Food Babe, here is my personal response:

Dear Vani,

Scientists, skeptics, farmers, and scientist-writers like me have given you ample occasions to have civil debates. Not once have you taken the opportunity to do so. Nevertheless, I will continue to reach out with the hope that you’ll agree to a direct dialogue.

10730911_1567744076778936_1807429254740783159_nYes, I happen to be Chow Babe’s spokesperson, but first and foremost I’m an outspoken writer challenging unscientific and misleading propaganda. Early on in my criticism of scientific misinformation, I noticed you perhaps unintentionally misleading your followers on the subject of cancer. For example, you once asked your readers whether eating the “best foods on the planet” and avoiding environmental toxins would prevent cancer in an individual with a BRCA 1 or 2 mutation. In short, this notion is completely erroneous. The likelihood of breast or ovarian cancer is very high with these specific hereditary mutations, and your suggestions to avoid a cancer diagnosis are mere wishful thinking. Here is my piece criticizing your stance on BRCA mutations in detail.

In addition, you frequently demonize so-called carcinogens without scientific basis. For instance, you demonize group 2b carcinogens like carrageenan. Carrageenan is categorized as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” yet you happily post selfies drinking alcoholic beverages. You must know that wine, beer, and spirits are classified by the IARC as group 1 carcinogens, meaning they are known to cause cancer in humans. You discuss cancer often on your blog, yet it’s painfully clear that you don’t understand how carcinogenesis works even at the most basic level.

This brings me to my next point. You state in your response that one doesn’t need a PhD to be a consumer advocate or food investigator, and that “just because you have a degree, doesn’t make you right.”

Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree that one doesn’t need a PhD to discourse about food and food-related science. Nevertheless, I always believe that it’s critical to draw from mainstream experts. Claims need to be supported by the broad weight of empirically based studies and not just reflect someone’s opinion or a one-off study that fits preconceived notions. To blithely abandon the scientific consensus to embrace views considered unscientific by the most reputable science bodies in the United States and world suggests ideology and activism for its own sake, and not science. At minimum one needs a solid grasp of the science behind claims in order to be credible.

You do not appear to understand what a “science experiment” means as distinct from pure opinion; what you deem “personal experience.” You state the following:

“I know with my own body, that eliminating food additives was one of the best decisions I ever made — before that I was on several prescription drugs, felt and looked awful. I have more energy now than I did 10 years ago, 10 years older! – How is that possible if there isn’t something to all of this healthy eating? Or more directly, to eliminating the chemicals that major food companies have yet to justify to us with any explanation.

Others without a PhD have also conducted the same experiments, using their bodies and personal experience, and have come to a similar conclusion.

I use a variety of published scientific papers, interviews with experts, studies and opinions from noteworthy and respected public interest groups in my writings (they are usually blue hyperlinked throughout my posts). We are still learning the impacts of the food we eat – much of it hasn’t even been studied – thousands of chemicals in our food supply remain untested. So much new information is being discovered every single day.”

Vani, using one’s body and personal experience does not a science experiment make, no matter what the self-proclaimed “conclusion.” A valid experiment must be conducted under controlled conditions with a clear hypothesis, and confounding factors must be minimized. For the results to be compelling, they must be reproducible. In other words, you need confirming independent studies by reputable scientists.

As Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The evidence you cite to corroborate your extraordinary claims is far from extraordinary; indeed it’s dicey and weak. The so-called credentialed experts you cite may have PhDs, yet this makes them no less wrong. There is no body of evidence to support their claims and they are not primary researchers in these fields. You take dubious or totally fabricated findings, almost always unscientific and often anecdotal, and tout them as alarming, scary truth. If this isn’t unscientific fear-mongering, I don’t know what is.

I was shocked and heartbroken to see you conflating my message and those of my comrades with the hateful, and violently misogynistic messages you’ve received. You call me the spokesperson for a “hate group,” yet I’m a feminist, skeptical and above all else compassionate writer. Many women have been targets of misogyny online. Internet misogyny is a scourge that we all should continue to combat together. I too have been targeted, told that I’m “poisoning” my children and that it will be my fault if they ever suffer a terminal illness. In addition, I’m Indian-American just like you, and have always defended you against ignorant racist remarks, in part because I know how it feels.

While these attacks are deplorable, they are irrelevant to the majority of sensible, scientific and civil backlash against your work. Conflating misogyny with relevant opposition is underhanded. You are using this in an attempt to derail the entire conversation–a public conversation in which you’ve never even been willing to engage. You’re throwing yourself a pity party and inviting your entire army.

An email sent by Ms. Hari to her email subscribers

The fact is you have refused to engage with reasonable critics of your writings–the misinformation, sometimes dangerous, that you spread so carelessly. Being critical of your campaigns does not make someone hateful. I’ll repeat, it’s hurtful and offensive to paint all of your opponents with a “hate group” brush. Peruse the 4000+ members of the Banned by Food Babe group and read the comments. These are not the comments of a hate group.

Vani, you exemplify the most condemnable misogynistic attacks as representative of your opponents. None of the people or organizations you lambast in your post condone these awful attacks. Yet, you personally are responsible for unsubstantiated, utterly fabricated ad hominem attacks against many of us, and to which I’ve been subjected all too often–the “shill” gambit.

Not everyone who is critical of you is automatically a shill for Big Ag or Big Biotech. Unfounded accusation of shilling is based in ignorance and is disingenuous. This is an empty tactic. If any of us truly has a “financial incentive” to oppose you, please, produce tangible evidence, don’t just spew rhetoric.

How is Dr. Kevin Folta, department chair of Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida, one of the most independent of scientists in the world with no industry connections making money from the biotech industry and Monsanto? How are Chow Babe, Science Babe, Food Hunk or I profiting from criticizing your views? Produce evidence.

Vani, I implore you to stop name-calling and throwing tantrums, and to respond to the relevant questions posed to you. And if you disagree, rather than retreat into your echo-chamber of support, venture out and engage with critics. We’re all willing and eager to dialogue, in public, and in any forum of your choosing.


Mother, Feminist and Science Advocate,

Kavin Senapathy

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Nice article, Thanks. You are waaayy nicer and more tactful than I’ll ever be. Hopefully more effective as well.

  • Here’s the problem with that last paragraph. Do you really think Hari believes what she writes? Even for a second? Do you think she’d be so loathe to public conversations about it if she honestly believed the crap she wrote? I don’t. For all the claims of “shills” attacking her, the fact is that she’s a shill. She’s in it for the money, not because she believes in it.

    • The funny thing is that the history of the “shill” moniker is that the person doing the shilling was not being transparent about their employment. Vani identifies herself as being paid through these advertisements.

    • Chuck

      I used to think that too: can someone really be that obtuse? I also used to think that if someone did not recognize the logic of an argument such as the one advanced by Ms. Senapathy, it was because the point was not made persuasively enough; that it was was the fault of the person making the claim because they were not able to find the right words to connect with their adversary. However, the more I engage in this conversation with anti-GMO advocates and those who embrace naturalistic philosophy, the more I realize that yes, some people are immune to evidence and reason. Cognitive dissonance can be that powerful.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    @ AngryScience, and Karl, So, she is honest and transparent about her lying??? You smart folks are always confusing me.

    • Haha, I mean she doesn’t make any pretense about making money off of products. She just pretends that it is not the same thing whe someone on the other side does… well… the same thing.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Yup, Thing is you gave me an opening to be a smart aleck. There is an almost 100% probability I’ll use it.

  • Ray Kinney

    The ‘Scientific Method’ is the best process we have come up with to question ourselves with. Continually upgrading the quality of the questions we ask is the whole point. Questioning ourselves, questioning others, and questioning authority is the whole point. When we stop adequately questioning ourselves we slip down that slippery slope more into the ‘dogma’ end of the intelligence continuum. Vani Hari is really only pointing out that we may have been falling down in our existential responsibility to always be sure to continually put ourselves under the microscope… to desperately try to be sure we are not fooling ourselves. She has strong doubts that we are being adequate in our use of the scientific method to better guide public health and wellbeing. i’m quite sure she appreciates all of the good science done, but she still has doubts that the full scientific methodology is adequately done for the current food science paradigm. In this, I’m quite sure she is right. Can anyone truthfully say she is wrong, and that the ‘science’ as practiced (and marketed) is pure? Is not commonly tainted with many shortchanged industry-justified, less than adequately concluded, money-biased, ‘profiteering’ at the expense of public health?

    • “Vani Hari is really only pointing out that we may have been falling down in our existential responsibility to always be sure to continually put ourselves under the microscope… to desperately try to be sure we are not fooling ourselves.”
      Well, no, she is actually rejecting what we do know about the ingredients that are being focused on, and is making false claims that anyone can easily verify if they have the time and inclination. That she does this while selling products that compete for market share against the products that she criticizes should really give you pause – that is if you really do care about industry taint.

    • tward

      Ray Kinney puts forth several fallacies.

      The main fallacy is the equivalence of “questioning” with the scientific method. The scientific method consists of processes for discovering what is objectively true (or, more correctly, probably true or true within a given domain to a given level of measurement, subject to rigorous statistical treatment). The spirit of scientific discovering is motivated by questioning. However, not all questioning leads to scientific inquiry.

      Simply questioning is not science.

      Furthermore, the scientific method has nothing to do with “questioning authority”. The results of scientific inquiry have often challenged the dogma of existing authority, but the goal of science is not related to the prevailing authority. The only thing challenged by a scientific inquiry is the clearly stated hypothesis being tested. Science is agnostic to authority.

      The post closes with the common “if we can’t be sure of everything, we cannot reject anything” line. The implication is that since science as practiced is not “pure”, then anyone with an opinion should have equal footing with any scientific inquiry.

  • Ray Kinney

    Now, obviously, the whole system is not either corrupt, nor ‘pure’… but a messy combination of influences that are well short of being blessed with seal of approval by the ‘Scientific Methodology’ gods and goddesses. We all had better be aware that we have not yet reached a very adequate paradigm of the full use of the method we put our hopes into for the futures of our great great grandchildren. Yes, the method is the Way… but it is not very well-used yet, compared to how it could be, and must become. Any questioning by anybody should be welcome, to help us to better question ourselves. If not, we slip deeper into the ‘doo doo’ of dogma on the knowledge continuum.

    • Science does not “Bless” things, and there are no ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in this endeavor. Science is based on questioning, and given that this post was about questioning someone who is making outlandish claims, I think you didn’t get the point of it.

      • tward


        Scientific inquiry may start with questioning, but questioning itself is not evidence of a scientific approach.

  • Ray Kinney

    So Karl, you don’t question the use of MSG, at current levels added to foods? You feel very sure that this additive is not pathogenic at the current use levels? Do you a good sense of how much MSG is being added to our foods? No hint of questioning attitude remaining in your mind? That is curious to me.
    Perhaps you think that the current levels of lead exposure across our environment are safe levels too?

  • Ray Kinney

    Karl,Karl,… that was ‘tongue in cheek’. My main point is that industry often takes inadequate science as a ‘blessing’ of their practices and products… leading to a lot of subtle pathogenesis in society.

  • Ray Kinney

    Come to think of it, it seems that that is also the main point Vani Hari is trying to make.
    It comes down to really , REALLY, just wanting to be SURE that what we are feeding or children is as safe as it can be. That is the basic gut-wrenching responsibility that we all have to deal with. Sure, the fears that we may not be doing our responsibility adequately, and that the food science paradigm might not be adequate as well, causes us to become less eloquent than we should be at times… just as it seems to do to you, but ultimately we are all looking to have the same outcome.. better public health and safety than we currently have.

  • I love how there really is a “Food Hunk” lol I was getting somewhat annoyed by the seemingly recent trend of appealing to sexiness, or implied possible sexiness, for popularity in science blogging and etc. by women. On one hand I’m thinking “well good to have more women shown in science, maybe that will help against the gender gap…” But on the other hand it gets to feeling like the message is “okay we’ll let you girls in the boys club and talk sciencey and all, but if you’re pretty to look at in the meantime!” …I mean…I guess that’s progress?

    But anyway, so I was thinking “it still doesn’t seem like a very positive message though, after all, you don’t see guys having to resort to monikers like ‘Food Hunk’ in order to get people to pay attention to you…”

    And then I see there actually is a blogger named Food Hunk 😛

  • Ray Kinney

    Often when research knowledge floats toward the top, it runs a variable risk if intentionally or unintentionally becoming in effect, censored. Information that tends to support the current agency, or institution, politic tends to get passed to upper and mid management of other agencies, filtered by the politic of the receiving agency and passed vertically downward toward field managers. Research that tends not to support the originating agency politic tends not to get passed along or the research teams suffer the consequence of not getting funded for continuation of the politically adverse research.
    Research by academic institutions also gets similarly censored, intentionally or unintentionally, by funding sources that increasingly pressure to produce politic-supportive research but not continuing to fund politic-unsupportive research. Regardless of the intent, this constitutes an alarming degradation of scientific integrity and the scientific method itself.

  • Ray Kinney

    Vani Hari asks us to question ourselves more… that is a healthy thing, and just because she is not a ‘scientist’ does not negate her relevance toward improving societal wellbeing. We should always be uncertain that we have the corner on intelligence, and we should always be concerned that we are not adequately doing all we should be contributing to further improve the quality of our food supply and health. There is a lot of work to do.

  • Q. Looper

    Just ordered Vani Hari’s new book. Thanks to this blog and it’s comments I am even more convinced we need more activists like Vani. I know I’m more healthy thanks to her and others like her, and my doctors have confirmed this. The fact that one ordinary non-scientific woman can create positive change in an industry that’s more for profit than for people and people’s health speaks loads. We should all be so inquisitive.
    Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU Biology Fortified!

    • Thanks for the anecdote, may you be ever healthy; remember science is Vani’s antidote, and be wary of profiteers so stealthy.

  • Ray Kinney

    I am wary of profiteers so wealthy including the pesticide industry, which outdoes Hari by many miles in both profiteering and stealth. At least I know Hari is empathetic in advocating for the PP.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    No, Ray you do not know that. You are believing her claims about that. Why? What are her funding sources? Further even if she is dumb as a rock and therefore possibility sincere. Misguided do-gooders are capable of harm do to the believability of that sincere look in the eye. Also the financial comparison is just dumb. Of course an established industry with thousands of stockholders makes more profit. The way to compare would be profit per man hours performed and dollars invested. That type of comparison might be revealing. Also your use of the terms profiteering and stealth reveals that even after all the efforts of folks like Karl etc. that have responded to your comments in apparently vain attempts to you. You still have not got even a tenuous grip on your biases. Quite frankly I am very disappointed that your posts do not improve. I used to consider you, as I do most folks as being at least as intelligent as I am. Do I need to re-evaluate?

  • “NPR is a renowned and reputable organization” You have got to be kidding! If they are so renowned and reputable, then let them survive on their OWN and without stealing OUR tax dollars! The fact that you side with NPR tells me that the Food Babe is right!

    • I believe I have heard a new argument today: Someone who promotes unscientific and false information must be right because their critic finds a tax-subsidized news organization reputable.
      Or formalized:
      A is subsidized by B
      C is a critic of D
      C refers to A as reputable
      Therefore, D is right.

  • Ray Kinney

    Yes, Eric please keep re-evaluating, that’s the only way we are going to advance. When profits drive the research funding prioritization process, rather than the health and safety being the primary driver, societal wellness is at greater risk. The food industry needs to keep these priorities straight before having an ethical right to those ‘profits’ or the profits become false profits due to externalization of hidden costs onto society. This is a huge responsibility, and one that is inherently a human rights issue of the highest order. Funding biases that trend toward encouraging profit generation over human safety often slant university and college research emphasis (intentionally, or unintentionally) more toward industry profit gain than is healthy or responsible. Everybody has a responsibility to evaluate this distnction continually, and to advocate for better societal result. IMHO

  • wellness

    Why can’t you all just stop judgement. Are you so right? Vani Hari is another person putting stuff out there just like every post each and everyone of you choose to do. Do you all know the exact truth of all chemicals and products?
    Let people speak and post …..Maybe just maybe then we can get the government to consider a committee of honest people to investigate ingredients in foods. Let people put their stuff out there without your egos getting in the way. So what if she is an alarmist. Maybe she will wake people up to look into what they eat and why they feel bad. Jezzzzzz,,, you all think your so right just like her. Putting your thoughts out there just like anyone who is into whatever they.r into. If we dint believe you we are wrong. If we don’t believe her we r wrong. Be happy doing your own thing without judgement. Moved on quietly. Live silently. If u have nothing nice to say be quiet…..

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      Many of the scientists who post here probably do know the exact truth about the products and chemicals they discuss. And their egos do not seem to be getting in the way. They often show quite precisely how wrong vani is. That is sometimes part of their job. And when not it seems to be a hobby I am grateful for. You see. I do not appreciate the lies and/or errors put out there by vani and the rest of the folks who go along with the nonsense. And guess what? Opposing folks who spread nonsense is a nice thing to do. And judgment is a good thing when done accurately. And these folks have very accurately exposed vani. ,I hope the posters who expose evil continue to do so as I am grateful for the fact that they helped me. Teaching truth is a nice thing to do.

    • tward

      Re: “Do you all know the exact truth of all chemicals and products?” This is a transparent and too-common technique used to deflect criticism. It is a version of the “Appeal to Ignorance” fallacy. In this example “wellness” implies that because one does not know everything about all things, one knows nothing about any thing.

      (In this example, the “things” are individual products within the “everything” set of all chemicals and products.)

  • tward

    There are other misdirections and fallacies in this comment from “wellness”.

    One is that because a) a set of activities may lead to a favorable outcome, then b) all of those activities should be unquestioned. This is yet another way to try to shut down a discussion via innuendo.

    Another deflection is the false equivalency of statements along with the implication that expert opinion based in facts is equivalent to “ego”. The claim is that all opinions should be accepted without criticism, while criticism based on demonstrable expertise is “judgement”.f This is an attempt to put the charlatan and the fool not just on equal footing with the educated and wise, but to impute higher moral character onto the charlatan and the fool.