It has been a rough couple of weeks for Vani Hari.
Ms. Hari, who goes by the self-proclaimed moniker of Food Babe, has made a name – and a LOT of money – for herself through her blog, a book and Facebook group. Her mission, as she calls it, is to investigate what’s in food and to shine light on things like toxins, preservatives and other additives that, in her opinion, might be harmful.
On the surface, Ms. Hari’s mission seems straight-forward and laudable: To educate consumers about what they come in contact with on a daily basis. What’s the harm in that?
According to critics, Hari ignores science and instead peddles misinformation based on fear, confusion and a profound misunderstanding of science and the scientific method. Hari's training is not in toxicology. Not in medicine. Not in biology, pharmacology or nutrition. She is not a dietitian. She has a degree in computer science. Her opinions on food safety are exactly that: just opinions.
She’s enjoyed quite the success since starting her blog in 2011. She has even gathered a following which she calls the “food babe army.”
But the tracks are starting to come off the Food Babe juggernaut.
- A December 2014 NPR exposé entitled “Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out” concluded that much of Food Babe’s message is based on manipulation and misinformation. Cancer surgeon David Gorski is quoted in the article as calling Hari “a blackmailer”.
- A March 2015 New York Times article notes that she has “no training as a food scientist, nutritionist or chef…” and that she receives a commission from promoting certain alternative products.
- On April 11, 2015, Time Inc. published, “5 More ‘Food Babe’ Myths You Shouldn’t Believe”
- Business Insider published an article in April 2015 entitled, “Here's why scientists are hating on Vani Hari, the 'food babe'”
- Most recently, a Gawker article entitled “The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Sh*t”, written by forensic chemist Yvette D'Entremont, explored some of Hari’s most outrageous claims and answers them with valid science.
The online community erupted in response.
Critics flooded her Facebook site, many asking about her credentials and citations for some of her claims. Many of these questioners were summarily banned without explanation or reason.
But, not to be outdone, some examined her old Facebook and Twitter feeds and found a few gems:
- She asserted that flu shots were used as genocidal tools. When this Twitter gem was unearthed she immediately started deleting all her old posts.
- Regarding recirculated air in aircraft, she wrote, "The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%." This betrays a profound misunderstanding of reality. As you probably recall from grade 6 science class, air is comprised of about 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, the rest being other gases. Higher concentrations of oxygen can be toxic and explosive. She also attempted to delete that post but the internet never forgets.
- She insisted that microwaving food destroys nutrients. She also asserted that microwaving water will cause changes in the molecular structure of water, similar to the changes that happen with water when you say the word “Hitler” in its presence. (I promise you, I’m not making this up.)
- She says that sunscreen is bad for you, despite the fact, in the US, that in 2015 approximately 140,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma, a skin cancer often caused by sun overexposure.
- She encourages restaurant patrons to lie about their food allergies
So what did Hari do in response?
- She has accused critics of being shills for Big Pharma (whatever that is) and that they're being paid by Monsanto, the company that manufacturers pesticides and herbicides. She provided no evidence of these claims.
- She refuses to debate, or even discuss, her conclusions with critics. Among others, Dr Joe Schwarcz of McGill University has repeatedly called upon her todiscuss her ideas in a respectful, public forum. Hari refuses to respond.
- She attempted to delete her previous statements, further undermining her credibility.
- Rather than responding factually and with data and reason, she resorted to ad hominem attacks on her critics. At one point she called critic Yvette d’Entremont “twisted."
With her reputation becoming more threadbare by the moment, whether Ms. Hari will be able to recover from this is anyone’s guess.
But, if nothing else, her handling of these criticisms is a good lesson in how NOT to manage a crisis. Perhaps the best some people can hope for is to be a bad example.