Self-titled ‘Food Babe’ has lots of fans – and some critics

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comJuly 13, 2014 

Vani Hari’s followers hail her as a savior of food activism who reaches hundreds of thousands of readers eager for straight talk on the American processed-food machine.

But in interviews with food-policy advocates and academics, she is criticized for sensationalized and overblown claims. Other activists say she takes more credit than she deserves. And in some cases, the Charlotte Observer found evidence of errors and inconsistencies.

As Charlotte, N.C.’s self-titled “Food Babe,” Hari’s blog is becoming known all over the country for campaigns against food companies. Harnessing supporters she calls her army, she has pressured Kraft over its use of food dyes, gotten Subway to remove a controversial dough conditioner from its breads and convinced two large beer makers to make their ingredient lists public.

Hari says she is simply trying to help people understand what’s in their food and hold companies accountable. She says she has researched her critics and that they attack anyone who opposes alternative nutrition.

“I know that I’m doing the right thing,” she says. “I’m trying to help people understand things that no one else has spoken out about.”

Dollars and clicks

Like food-world celebrities from Paula Deen to Rachael Ray, Hari has carved a niche for herself that is heavily focused on her personal life and appearance. On her website, foodbabe.com, the Food Babe brand covers everything from her favorite recipes to shopping links for her favorite brand of granola (Kaia Foods Buckwheat) and deodorant (Vermont Soap Sage Lime Organic).

Fans such as Cortney Balicki, a fitness trainer at Burn Bootcamp in Charlotte, flock to the site for Hari’s articles on things such as bread and sugar.

“Whenever I sit down with a new client, I direct them there for how to eat clean and live a healthy lifestyle,” Balicki says.

Being a consumer advocate, which is what Hari calls herself, appears to be lucrative. While Hari declined to disclose what she makes from the website, she and her husband, Finley Clarke, both left what she says were “six-figure incomes” as technology consultants to work full time for foodbabe.com.

She runs the site from a small, 11th-floor condo uptown, where she has a desk with stacks of books on the floor behind it.

In less than two years, Hari, 35, has gotten a book contract with Little, Brown (“The Food Babe Way,” due out in February, on her organic lifestyle), a William Morris Endeavor agent to handle her TV appearances and a website packed with advertising and product endorsements. You can even buy an eating-plan subscription for $17.99 a month.

Like other well-trafficked sites, the Food Babe is an affiliate of Amazon.com: If you click on a product and it takes you to the shopping site, Hari gets a percentage from your purchase as well as a percentage from anything else you buy during the same visit.

Google Analytics shared by Hari show an average of 5.3 million page views and 2.4 million unique visitors a month since mid-March. She logs 600,000 “likes” on Facebook, mostly from women between 25 and 34 years old. Her Twitter page shows 64,000 followers.

Those are heady numbers in the policy world, where dry studies about food additives are often met with yawns. Groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been eager to partner with her.

“When she puts a link on (to our reports), several thousand people will come and look at our website,” says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which campaigns on chemicals and pesticide law. “She has a passionate following.”

Debate is her sport

Hari has told her story many times on her blog and in interviews: She’s the daughter of a mechanical-engineering professor and math teacher who knew each other for only a few hours before their arranged marriage in India.

With well-educated parents, she says there was a lot of family pressure to succeed.

“My mom always said she didn’t want an ordinary child,” Hari says.

Hari and her older brother were raised in Charlotte on a diet she describes as heavily processed and typically American. The result, she says, was eczema, asthma and weight struggles.

One of her earliest memories is of being with her dad, a professor at UNC Charlotte, at Huntingtowne Farms Elementary School on Election Day in 1988. He was wearing a big sticker for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis while everyone else’s button said “George Bush.”

“They were looking at him like he had three heads,” she says. “I remember him holding his own, standing out in the crowd. It taught me that you don’t have to follow what everyone else says to do.”

At South Mecklenburg High, Hari got so serious about debate that she jokes about it being her sport. She went to the University of Georgia as a member of the debate team, but quit after a week. She says her family convinced her it wouldn’t help her earn a living. She transferred to UNC Charlotte, where she got a degree in computer science in 2001.

After college, she went to work for Accenture, a management consulting firm with an office in Charlotte. Clients were mostly banks that needed help with technology.

She was ambitious, she says – “My goal was to be partner.” She worked long hours and traveled frequently, gaining weight on a diet of takeout and fast food.

Sometimes when she tells her story, she says she suffered from “a serious health crisis.” It actually was appendicitis, in 2002. Although appendicitis is not often linked to nutrition, she decided hers was caused by inflammation she blamed on her diet.

She calls it “a light-bulb moment.” She started reading about organics and changed to a diet free of processed foods. Although she isn’t a vegetarian, she gave up beef and says she only eats organic or locally raised chicken and fish.

Ten years later, she began to blog about her life and the dangers of processed food. She wanted to call it “eathealthyliveforever.com,” but her husband convinced her no one would click on that.

He suggested the Food Babe because, she says he told her: “ ‘You’re a babe.’ 

The original opening page showed Hari on a beach in a bikini, stretched backwards in a yoga pose.

In December 2012, on a vacation in South America, Hari was reading a career self-help book, had an epiphany and decided to quit her job and pursue her website full time. It was redesigned to emphasize her role as a “food investigator,” including numerous pictures and videos of Hari.

Does she worry the emphasis on her appearance and the name “Food Babe” keep her from being taken seriously?

“For people who look at labels, it’s a problem,” she says. “But given my success, I can’t say it’s been a detriment. If anything, it’s allowed me to connect with people. People appreciate my ability to communicate complex ideas in everyday language.

“It’s who I am now.”

Science or silliness?

While some people do appreciate her ability to communicate, her language also has drawn strong criticism.

Her campaigns have attracted increasing scrutiny, particularly on what critics call her lack of food science credentials. In her recent post about beer ingredients, for instance, critics point to how she makes common ingredients seem alarming, such as the use of isinglass in brewing. Isinglass is a protein derived from fish that’s been used since the 18th century to remove yeast and clarify beer.

Her claim about “an ingredient found in antifreeze” being added to beer also draws criticism. Actually, the ingredient used is propylene glycol alginate, a kelp derivative used to stabilize head foam, not propylene glycol, a coolant. She later clarified this on her website.

Supporters, including Mark Kastel, the president of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, say the criticism is to be expected.

“Anytime you challenge powerful entities in the food industry, you’re going to get blowback,” he says. “You’re going to be countered by science, or they’re going to engage in what I refer to as the politics of hate and division. They’re going to attempt to discredit you.”

What does Hari say about charges of mistakes? “I’ve never claimed to be a nutritionist,” she says. “I’m an investigator.”

However, many of Hari’s critics aren’t from the food industry. They’re academics who say they’re disturbed by errors in how she explains science.

In a post on why she thinks a flu shot is dangerous but getting the flu is not, scientists say she includes incorrect information on how vaccines work. She also doesn’t note that flu can be serious and even fatal to high-risk groups. In 2013-14, it caused 107 deaths in North Carolina.

Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, looked at the post at the Observer’s request and found numerous problems.

“She takes facts that may be technically true, but then she runs with it and goes down roads that are inappropriate and frankly misleading,” he says. “There’s facts there, but then they’re misinterpreted.”

For example, he challenged her assertion that the flu shot is dangerous.

“It’s given in millions of doses around the world annually, endorsed by the World Health Organization, ministries of health in every major country and the FDA in the United States. It can’t possibly be unsafe.”

Dr. Joe Schwarcz is a chemistry professor at McGill University in Montreal. He writes frequently on a university website, the Office of Science and Society ( www.mcgill.ca/oss/), which aims to spread the knowledge of science to laypeople.

Hari tries to do good things, he says. But he’s troubled by her lack of knowledge of chemistry.

“It isn’t hard to deconstruct her arguments.” he said. “Most of them are so silly. Her basic tenet is guilt by association.”

As an example, he cites her campaign against Subway for the use of azodicarbonamide, which Hari characterized as “the yoga mat chemical” because it is also used to create foam in rubber.

“Whatever the story is with azodicarbonamide has nothing to do with whether it’s a yoga mat chemical,” Schwarcz says. “This is absurdity, to say if something is used in one context, it can’t be used in food.

“We use water to wash our cars. Vinegar can be used to kill weeds. If she ever found out, she’d want salad dressing banned.”

Tom Philpott is a columnist for Mother Jones magazine who writes frequently about food and agriculture policy. While he supports the work Hari does in focusing on regulatory gaps in the food system, he also cautions that it’s critical to get the science right.

“These are very, very complicated topics,” he says. “The science is often very subtle. There are real problems she’s trying to address that she doesn’t always address very well.”

Other food-policy activists worry that Hari’s lack of rigor in her research will make it more difficult for all of them to be taken seriously.

“We’re up against very powerful industry players,” says Michele Simon, a public health attorney and author who is president of Eat Drink Politics, which provides information on food policy.

“It’s a hard enough fight without advocates undermining our own credibility. The one thing we can’t do is get the facts wrong. Otherwise, the advocacy work is not credible.”

Simon says some of what Hari trumpets as victories are actually small changes that are easy for companies to make. Taking azodicarbonamide out of bread can make it look like Subway has made its food healthier, she says. But Subway still uses processed meats that are high in sodium and fat.

Getting Anheuser-Busch to post ingredients on a website is far short of what other activists want, which is to get ingredients listed on the labels of all alcoholic beverages.

“Declaring victory over a small thing can be worse than nothing,” Simon says, “because it makes it look like success, with nothing more. She plays into industries’ desire to look good by partnering with them in these ‘victories.’ 

Hari bristles at that criticism.

“Getting the ingredients listed in beer is huge,” she insists. “This wasn’t just me, it’s the people. It’s the power of the people.”

Sharing information with big headlines and catchy slogans on her website is “just a way of communicating,” she says. “For the everyday citizen, they don’t know what azodicarbonamide means. That’s why I’ve been effective.”

‘Hold companies accountable’

Hari’s claims that she is the only food advocate demanding answers often rubs other policy activists the wrong way.

One of her early campaigns was focused on Chick-fil-A. Hari visited the company’s headquarters in 2012 to talk about several issues, including the use of antibiotics in chicken.

This February, when Chick-fil-A announced a plan to use chicken that was free of antibiotics within five years, Hari’s headline was “We Did It Again!” She wrote that she had been “consulting with them on the top priorities of consumers and on healthy ingredient changes.”

Several food-policy activists have raised questions about Hari’s role, saying that many groups had lobbied the company.

Tiffany Greenway, a corporate spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A, said that no group influenced the company’s decision, including Hari.

“The decision to move to antibiotic-free chicken was rooted in what we heard from our customers,” Greenway said. “This is a journey we’ve been on for quite a while.”

Hari has confirmed that she was paid by Chick-fil-A for her work as a consultant on their ingredients, a fact she appears to have not mentioned on her website.

Michele Simon, a veteran of food-policy battles, acknowledges that Hari does bring a lot of attention to important issues. She just wishes Hari used it more effectively.

“That’s what all of us want, a bigger megaphone. She has that value. Let’s use that in the right way, let’s make sure our facts are solid and that we’re doing strategic campaigns, not just headline-grabbing quick wins that won’t make a difference in the long run.”

For her part, Hari says she plans to be at this for a long time.

“If I won the lottery, I’d be doing the exact same thing I’m doing today,” she says. Her goal? “To continue to hold companies accountable. I don’t think my work will ever be done.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236

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