Jolley: Five Minutes with Vani Hari and why does she matter?

Jolley: Five Minutes with Vani Hari and why does she matter?Yesterday, I received a note from a good friend expressing her annoyance with a fear-monger named Vani Hari, a woman who self-describes as the "Food Babe." A few minutes later, I logged onto Cattlenetwork and read Kevin Folta's Food Babe Visits my University, an opinion piece that expressed his agony with the University of Florida's decision to let her spread "her corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism here at the University of Florida."

Folta made his intellectual agony perfectly clear with this statement near the end of his rant: "If this is a charismatic leader of a new food movement it is quite a disaster. She's uninformed, uneducated, trite and illogical. She's afraid of science and intellectual engagement. She's Oz candy at best."

"Oz" as in Dr. Oz, a renowned television charlatan who specializes in self-promoting quackery and was uncomfortably grilled for his nonsense during a recent Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. If he can annoy our elected leaders with his towering babel, the bad doc has certainly plumbed the intellectual depths of America. The Food Babe has been his guest several times.

She prefers the name 'Food Babe' but she branches out into other fields too, all without a factual compass. Wandering around in the weeds and exhorting her sycophants to follow her down darkened paths is her M.O. Asking for large sums of money to help expand her unlettered base is one of her favorite things to do. 

Take microwave ovens, for instance. They've been around for more than a half century. For at least 35 years, they've been America's favorite way to reheat a cold cup of coffee or cook some bacon for breakfast. During the early days of their commercialization, a few fear-mongers made a small fortune by suggesting microwaves could escape from the ovens and cause all sorts of cancers. Their solution? Buy their special microwave detectors that you could wave in front of your newly purchased machine to insure the health and safety of your family. 

Hari still thinks microwave ovens are evil things that cause water molecules to form crystals exposing users to "negative thoughts or beliefs," conjuring up the names of Hitler and Satan. Maybe she came across a legendary comment linking coffee with Satan. Six hundred years ago, Pope Clement VIII, after sipping some of the dark and forbidden brew, remarked to his skeptical advisers, "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it."

She doesn't like vaccines, either, claiming that flu vaccines contain a "bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of cancers and Alzheimer disease over time." Her fear leads to this conundrum which must be faced by the average 20-year old: Should I refuse an annual flu vaccine now and risk a one in a thousand chance every year of dying from the disease or take the shot and risk a one in a hundred thousand chance of getting Alzheimer's disease 50 years from now?

Of course, the immediate and immense toll that death can take on the unvaccinated is not her concern, neither are the deaths suffered by the vaccinated when exposed to unvaccinated Typhoid Mary's.

The Food Babe's favorite thing in life seems to be spreading groundless fears about the food we eat. Her defense? She says you don't have to be educated in a scientific pursuit to do research and report on it. Hari fancies herself as the canary in the cage, the first line of defense against the potential causes of a grim death - processed foods, GMO's, and chemicals of all kinds. I'm sure she's quite capable of ginning up public hysteria about the dangers of vile chemical additives like dihydrogen monoxide and sodium chloride. 

To be fully transparent, she sells diet advice online. Yep, she's another in a long-line of dietary snake-oil salesmen, a group of hustlers who have been with us since early man was first confronted with too much food. You, too, can sign up for her admittedly unscientific opinions. For just $17.99/month here is what you get:

  • Monthly meal calendar outlining daily menu (to be repeated for 4 weeks until the next month's guide comes out)
  • Detailed grocery list and approved brands that take the guesswork out of shopping
  • 16 new recipes per month (5 breakfast, 5 lunch, 5 dinner + 1 new salad dressing recipe)
  • Every recipe is comprised of whole food, non-GMO, organic, unprocessed and superfood ingredients
  • Calories are already counted and portions are controlled for weight loss or weight maintenance
  • Plant-based recipes with vegan and gluten-free alternatives

Reminds me of Jenny Craig without the annoyance of Kirstie Alley but it seems to be a slicker, more all encompassing package without any of that pesky science behind it. One advantage: instead of those pricey, pre-packaged meals, you just cook them yourself and save a buck or two.

And, like Jenny Craig, the Food Babe is a money-making machine. Hari's home-based enterprise is designed to profit handsomely off fomenting food fears. Let's refer to her company as FB, Inc. and even if you object to her totally and admittedly unscientific approach to condemning what's on your dinner plate, you have to admire her marketing skills.

Read this, for instance, taken from FB, Inc.'s blog/web site: "Posts may contain affiliate links for products Food Babe has approved and researched herself. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same (or at a discount if a special code is offered) and Food Babe will automatically receive a small referral fee. Your support is crucial because it helps fund this blog and helps us continue to spread the word. Thank you."

In plain English, FB, Inc. receives a kickback for every dime you spend buying products on her website, even a small fee every time you click on a link. It goes into the same bank account with the $15,000 fee she asks for her public appearances.

Here is what people are saying about Ms. Hari:

Dr. David Gorski: "The Food Babe is the Jenny McCarthy of the food industry. Of course, I don't mean that as a compliment."

Gorski says Ms. Hari's strategy is "to name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. Anti-freeze in beer? Propylene glycol has many uses, but the reason it's used in de-icing solutions is that it lowers the freezing temperature of water. That's it.

There are no concerns about toxicity because you'd have to consume huge quantities of it very quickly to have any effect. It's not, as Derek Zoolander might think, in the beer, it's in the cooling system for the beer; it just appears that propylene glycol is an ingredient because the law requires listing every production process."

Joe Schwarcz, McGill University Office for Science &; Society (a department dedicated to identifying pseudoscience): "She gets on all these talk shows partly because she is easier to look at. Her scientific background is nonexistent.

When you have a plumbing problem you call a plumber. When you have an electrical problem, you call an electrician. When you have an automobile problem, you consult a mechanic. Why then, when it comes to a food-related issue, which is inherently more complex, would one turn to the Food Babe?"

Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University: "She takes facts that may be technically true, but then she runs with it and goes down roads that are inappropriate and frankly misleading. There are facts there, but then they're misinterpreted."

Maureen Ogle, writer and author of "In Meat We Trust:" "Historically, consumer advocacy has come from nonprofits. But the Babe isn't an advocate. She's an entrepreneur who clearly, obviously, is only in this for her own profit."

Julie Upton, Registered Dietician and Appetite for Health blogger (talking about pseudo-science bloggers like Ms. Hari): "(They) know enough to sound credible, but they don't know the real science [or] how to interpret peer-reviewed research to fully understand the issues that they might be preaching about. I stay awake at night worried that my profession is going to become a hobby because of these people."

Dr. Mark Crislip, Infectious Disease specialist and author of Quackcast (a skeptical review of supplements and complementary and alternative medicine): "I admire the way Food Babe can take a complex and nuanced topic and distill it down to an aliquot of pure error. It is a talent rarely seen outside of the Tea Party. And she has a poor concept of vaccination and immunity and is under the false impression that vaccines are both lifelong and perfect."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.