Food, fear, and fame

If you are on Facebook, chances are you’ve seen someone share a post from “Food Babe,” the moniker of self-proclaimed health guru/investigative journalist/food activist Vani Hari. Her viral campaigns against the cancer-causing chemical in pumpkin spice lattes and the yoga mat chemical in Subway bread have helped launch her into fame with her thousands of followers, who she calls her “Food Babe army.”

After learning about Vani Hari, Yvette d’Entremont, a chemist and science communicator, started her own blog, under the pseudonym, Science Babe, with the aim to debunk pseudoscience that tends to circulate around the interwebs. Yesterday, the “Science Babe” published a piece on Gawker titled, “The ‘Food Babe’ is Full of $h*t” and it is brilliantly on point. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and click that link. I’ll wait…

Image via NatalieMaynor / Flickr

The facts are these:

Food Babe has built a brand around her own self-image and exploits the non-science minded through fear mongering rather than facts. Her mantra of “If a third grader can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” does nothing but create paranoia, instead of education about food. I doubt many third graders can say deoxyribonucleic acid aka DNA aka the stuff of life. Though what is terrifying about this, is that a recent survey conducted by Oklahoma State University showed that ~80% of respondents were in support of the government to mandate labels on foods containing DNA — yep, the question wasn’t about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but labeling DNA, the very chemical substance of which everything we eat is made.

By warning her readers of “chemicals” and “toxins” and “science,” Food Babe is actually causing more confusion over the issues surrounding the complexity of food science.* Sadly, anyone who tries to correct her misinformation gets labeled a “shill” paid off by the big bad food industry…and the Food Army drones on in agreement. Nevermind the fact that these people are actual scientists with actual science degrees and actual critical thinking skills.

So why should Food Babe back down? She’s found a way to promote her voice (and make money off of it) and ride the wave of internet fame. She’s confident that her past experiences work, so the same can work for you! She doesn’t claim to be a scientist, but an investigator who digs for the truth…

This is extremely dangerous for such a fast-paced world we live in. People don’t want to take the time to think critically and educate themselves about science — they’d rather be wowed with anecdotes from a click bait-y headline that’s easy to share in a split-second with one click. People who have legitimate health concerns are another reason why she is so dangerous…because she inspires her followers self-diagnose or “think” they have an allergy, or worse, feel like they need to lie about it to “fit in” with the crunchy crowd. I agree that changes need to be made to make food choices safe for people who really have health issues and need to be aware of what they are consuming.

It’s unrealistic to hold the average American accountable for understanding the complexity of scientific issues. But we can point them to scientists and communicators who are dedicated to explaining the science in a clear manner, without watering it down. Oversimplifying, which is exactly what Vani Hari does, causes nothing but confusion and fear of the very science and technology that has led us to discover penicillin, eradicate smallpox, send men to the moon, and inspire the next generation of curious young thinkers to live out their dreams.

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