I first heard of the Food Babe, a consumer activist blogger named Vani Hari, when she made headlines for blasting Subway’s inclusion of azodicarbonamide, a chemical that’s used to make yoga mats and rubber shoe soles, in its “fresh-baked” bread.
I remember thinking two things:
One, was I supposed to take seriously someone who referred to herself as the Food Babe?
And two, why the hell was Subway including a random, unnecessary chemical ingredient in something as simple as bread —which requires so few ingredients to be delicious?
It called into question just what other industrial chemicals Subway was pumping into its “fresh” and “healthy” sandwiches.
Yet, what was even more alarming was the Food Babe’s discovery that Subway has been churning out azodicarbonamide-free bread in the UK, EU and Australia for years, due to much stricter food regulations in those places.
“We deserve the same safer ingredients Subway serves in other countries,” she wrote in her online petition. “Subway doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. They can use the same recipes and ingredients they do across the globe.”
Since then, the Food Babe’s popularity has skyrocketed. She has a New York Times bestselling book and nearly 1 million followers on Facebook, whom she has christened, the Food Babe Army. And she has taken on and launched petitions against other food companies, including Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch and Starbucks.
But she also has a guerrilla army of critics with scientific credentials who have published numerous articles touting the Food Babe’s lack of credentials, debunking her claims, and casting her as an opportunistic fear monger.
One such hyper vocal critic is The Science Babe, Yvette d’Entremont, who recently published an essay on Gawker in which she uncouthly writes that the Food Babe is “full of shit.”
The Science Babe is a blogger with a degree in chemistry, an unhealthy obsession with the Food Babe and ridiculously provocative photos of herself on her “science” blog. Those photos, and sex toy ads, are an immediate turn-off and kind of an S&M take on the Food Babe’s Southern belle persona.
The Science Babe’s supposed “take down” of the Food Babe, which Gawker specifically paid d’Entremont to do, is making huge waves in the news media and on social media today, showcasing that the saying “everybody loves a girl fight” can now be applied to the digital realm as well.
However, the Science Babe’s essay is just as biased — D’Entremont used to work for a pesticide company — and scientifically dubious as she accuses the Food Babe of being. For instance, in her essay she writes, “Hari claims going organic will save you from pesticides, but organic farming uses pesticides too. Some of them are far more toxic than conventional pesticides.”
She then links to a blog post on RealClearScience.com that was written by Steven Ross Pomeroy, who has a degree in zoology. In the article, Pomeroy picks and chooses studies that support his claims and assertions that organic produce, grown using natural, non-chemical pesticides is no more healthy or less toxic that non-organic produce, presenting only one side of the issue. Not only is this bad journalism and bad scientific writing, but it’s also comical how in the comments section, a number of organic farmers chime in calling bullshit on Pomeroy’s claims.
The truth is that anyone can find any kind of scientific study to back up their claims. There are numerous anti-GMO studies, as there are pro-GMO studies; numerous studies about the innocuous effects of using azodicarbonamide in food, as there are studies on how azodicarbonamide can or could cause respiratory problems, asthma, tumors and cancers.
In my lifetime thus far, eggs have gone from being good for you; to being not so good for you (high cholesterol); to being good for you (great source of protein). And each “egg wave” was backed by one scientific study or another.
Whenever you see an article touting the findings of a new scientific study, you should never take it at face value. There are many factors that could influence the biased or not-so statistically sound outcome of a scientific study — from who funded it, to what was the sample size, to how long the study was conducted, etc.
Yet, non-scientists like you and me do not have the time to dig into the origin story and research methodology of each of the studies mentioned in an article touting or debunking chemical additives and GMO foods and the like.
We want to be able to rely on someone else to analyze and judge the validity of these studies (from a scientific method point of view) to weigh them against the body of research in the field; and then to offer us consumable and actionable advice and tips.
This is what the Food Babe provides to her audience. And whether she is a sincere consumer advocate or an opportunistic fear monger, she is obviously meeting a need.
We live in a day and age where we’re so detached from the growing and packaging of our food. Where corporations are getting more and more cavalier about putting unnecessary chemicals in our food, whilst still claiming that it’s “healthy” or “sugar free” or “all natural” via misleading plays on words. Where the heavily-lobbied FDA approves the usage of these chemicals, many of which are banned in Europe and other parts of the world. And where cancer and other food- and nutrition-related diseases are seemingly on the rise.
Members of the Food Babe Army want to know what they should or should not eat in order to lead a more healthy lifestyle now and long into the future. They want to know whether they should spend the extra money to buy organic strawberries. Whether drinking Diet Coke is a bad idea. Whether wild caught salmon really is healthier than farmed salmon. And they want the answers to be grounded in science yet communicated to them in laymen’s terms and in a congestible way.
Basically, they want a modern-day Consumer Reports for food safety and nutrition.
And no one seems to be filling that role quite like the Food Babe, who regularly posts tips on what to eat and what not to eat and why. Her prowess comes from her content and the way she communicates said content on her website and on Facebook.
Meanwhile, her science-degreed detractors are busy ranting about her lack of credentials and questionable ethics. The problem is they’ve been doing this for years, while offering nothing competitive in return.
After a while, it starts to come off as desperate and opportunistic; as if some of these detractors, especially the ones who are bloggers themselves, are simply envious that the Food Babe commands the huge audience that she does. It seems as though some of them are secretly hoping that by putting her on blast, they can gain more followers of their own along the way. Case in point: In the 24 hours since her Gawker essay debuted, Science Babe’s Facebook following has shot up by approximately 20,000.
What The Science Babe and her fellow debunkers fail to realize is that criticizing the Food Babe and her claims isn’t really all that helpful in the long run… not to the consumers who want to eat safely and more healthily.
If these debunkers really want to make a difference, then they need to start offering digital content that is similar to yet better than the Food Babe’s — a la, a website that provides concise and actionable recommendations on what to eat, what not to eat and why, based on an unbiased and analytical review of existing scientific research.
Oh, and a website wherein the scientist of record is not dressed like a dominatrix and sprawled across a chair as though she’s starring in her very own porn with Bill Nye the Science Guy.
If the Food Babe’s staunchest critics have any hope of changing and leading the dialogue about food safety and nutrition amongst consumers, then they’ll have to beat her at her own game.
And the Food Babe is in the game of content.