My first encounter with Vani Hari, food crusader who calls herself “Food Babe,” came in April 2014. A friend of mine asked me to check out a blog post going around Facebook called “8 Beers that You Should Stop Drinking Immediately.” Since I like doing things for my friends, and I like beer, I took a look at it.
It turned out to be a cut and paste of a cut and paste, with the original content coming from someone called “Food Babe.” I’d never heard of her, and in retrospect, kind of wish I hadn’t. Because her post, called “The Shocking Ingredients in Beer,” was so wrong that it actually made me slightly dumber. It was full of hyperbole, lies, scare tactics, weasel words, and poorly done “research” – all of which would become more familiar to me as I read more of her nonsense, and attempted to debunk it for Skeptoid.
I’d later take on her ludicrous assertion that the Nazis invented the microwave (they didn’t), as well as her terrible and negligent post scaring pregnant women into not taking the glucose tolerance test because glucose is bad. And as dumb as these are, they’re not even close to the worst things she’s spewed onto the web. As Food Babe’s profile grew and she drew more followers into her web of woo, many excellent science writers began debunking her, pointing out her abuses of logic, her hypocrisy, and her rampant chemphobia.
And so it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to read The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, a new book by three of said excellent science writers, Mark Alsip, Kavin Senapathy, and Marc Draco. The authors have pooled their talents to write a comprehensive, highly-vetted, logical, and layman-friendly takedown of Vani Hari – not the person, but the Food Babe persona, and the dangerous nonsense it spews out.
While it might seem excessive to spend over 400 pages debunking the ravings of one person, The Fear Babe does more than that. It serves as a primer on complicated, easily-misunderstood subjects that the media often seems like it can’t cover accurately. Concepts like genetically modified organisms, toxicity, what chemicals actually do, and gluten intolerance are hard to talk about in an accurate, simple way. Food Babe takes advantage of that to fill her readers’ heads with flawed logic, misinformation, and a desperate need to buy the products she’s selling. Fear is easy, science is hard.
The authors combat this fear through science – and they do it in a way virtually anyone will understand. They walk readers through Vani Hari’s claims, and don’t just say that they’re wrong, but explain why they’re wrong. From Hari’s infamous Tweet claiming that the flu shot is a tool for genocide, to her disturbing call for fans not to use sunscreen because vitamin D is good for you, to her misplaced crusades against the “yoga met chemical” in bread, Alsip, Senapathy, and Draco demolish them with evidence, science, and logic.
One perfect example of this is her hysterical fear-mongering over GMO’s. The authors rightly point out, in a display of scientific literacy that’s so simple I’m a bit embarrassed that I never thought of it before, that much of what the Food Babe points out as “GMO” not only isn’t a genetically modified organism, but can’t possibly be. Things like “non-GMO” salt, sunscreen, or shampoo, all of which Hari has pushed on her website, can’t be genetically modified organisms because they don’t have genes and aren’t organisms.
Isn’t that the simplest thing? Salt doesn’t have genes. Sunscreen isn’t an organism. Making readers afraid of “GMO salt” and selling them expensive “non-GMO salt” is a marketing fraud so brazen that PT Barnum would call the FDA. Likewise, many of the GMO boogeymen she demonizes, such as sugar, wheat, coffee, meat, and artificial flavors, can’t be genetically modified or aren’t. Either they’re not organisms, or there’s no scientific benefit from doing so.
The authors point out the flaws inherent in the very persona Food Babe has created. Vani Hari claims she lost a great deal of weight, cured her allergies, and became a better person by cutting sugar, flour, “GMO’s”, processed food, and “chemicals” out her diet. Putting aside whether this is actually true, and remember that the book isn’t an attack on Vani Hari as a person, the authors address the fact that this isn’t going to work as a weight loss technique for everyone – or anyone.
Fitness and healthy weight don’t stem from purging chemicals from your life, which is impossible, anyway. They stem from balanced eating and exercise. A long section of the book points out in detail why eating a lot of sugar and processed food is bad for you – and it’s not because of evil toxins and chemicals. It’s because they don’t satiate your hunger – so you eat more. Eating more calories makes you retain fat. Eating fewer calories and exercising makes you burn fat.
Obviously, it’s more complicated than that – but it’s not really that complicated. It’s logic.
And logic has never been an area where the Food Babe has excelled. The Fear Babe gives a laundry list of logical fallacies, and don’t just accuse Hari of using them, but points out specific instances where she’s used them. Everything from appeal to emotion to tu quoque – she’s used them all, many times. Often in tweets and Facebook posts that she’s since deleted, though the Internet never forgets. In fact, the authors point out some of the insanity in her earliest posts, things she’s long since either deleted or claimed she doesn’t remember writing. We should have seen this coming, right from the post years ago when she ranted about airplanes not using “pure oxygen” in passenger cabins.
Finally, the authors don’t pull any punches in pointing out Vani Hari’s hypocrisy. She demonizes chemicals and artificial additives, then sells (and claims to use) products that contain those very chemicals and artificial additives. Makeup, lotion, deodorant, hair products – all of these have been sold on the Food Babe website and put cash in her pocket, despite containing compounds she’s attacked other companies for using. Compounds that have been found to be perfectly safe, mind you.
Either Hari doesn’t know the ingredients of the products she sells, doesn’t use the products she says she uses, or knows these ingredients are safe and doesn’t care, as long as she makes affiliate money from selling them.
All of these possibilities should be disturbing to anyone in her “Food Babe Army.” In fact, this book would be the perfect holiday present for anyone you know who’s been suckered into her web of woo. Maybe they won’t read it, or they’ll dismiss the authors as paid shills in the pocket of Big Pharma. But at least you’ll have tried.
Vani Hari has birthed so much nonsense that my only quibble with the book is that it didn’t include some of my favorite of her rambles, such as her “advice” that pregnant women should avoid the glucose tolerance test in favor of jelly beans (non-GMO ones, of course, because jelly beans are living things) or a banana. That, and the pre-release copy of the book I read needed a good copy edit – because Hari and her followers are sure to jump on every typo as a sign of the authors not knowing what they’re talking about.
But they do. The Fear Babe is as researched and readable a takedown of any scientific charlatan as I’ve ever read. It’s a must read for both her fans and her opponents. Especially her fans.