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Why the "Food Babe" enrages scientists

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

If you needed more evidence that you can basically say anything about health — no matter how nonsensical and ridiculous — and win a massive following, consider the recent rise of blogger Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe.

Hari is a former management consultant turned self-styled consumer activist who uses her blog to wage war on the toxins in our foods — from supposedly "hazardous chemicals" in pumpkin spice lattes to the genetically modified ingredients in grocery aisles. Here's how the New York Times described her approach:

Sometimes she finds an ingredient, often an ugly-sounding chemical (propylene glycol, which she said was in beer), and finds a secondary industrial use (antifreeze) for it. (In this case, Ms. Hari actually confused her chemicals. Dr. David H. Gorski, a surgical oncologist who also has a degree in chemistry, wrote on Science-Based Medicine that the beer ingredient is propylene glycol alginate, which, despite its name, is not even close to propylene glycol, is not antifreeze and is derived from kelp.)

Hari then harnesses the power of her massive audience (known as the Food Babe Army) and online petitions to get food chains and manufacturers to stop using the ingredients she deems harmful, based on her pseudoscientific analyses. It doesn't matter that what she says usually isn't backed by research evidence, or that the chemicals she singles out pose no real danger to human health.

Hari has already gotten Kraft to remove a dye from its macaroni and Subway to stop using a chemical in its bread production, among her other wins. For this activism, the public adores her. She has managed to attract nearly a million Facebook and Twitter followers, a blog with 54 million visits last year, and a book deal. Time magazine named her one of the "30 Most Influential People on the Internet." There have also been major media profiles and Dr. Oz Show appearances. (The wizard gave her a further stamp of approval by anointing her Facebook page the "healthiest.")

While she rivals Dr. Oz in her ridiculousness, some observers think she is actually "on track to become the next Dr. Oz–level health-media personality."

It is no surprise that Hari's work enrages scientists, who call her the "Jenny McCarthy of Food" for the unfounded fear she stirs in people. Here's the Times again:

Scientists splutter with frustration that to Ms. Hari, the word "chemical" is always a pejorative and that she yells fire about toxins but ignores that fruits and vegetables are full of naturally occurring toxins, and that the dose makes the poison.

"Peach pits, for example, are very natural, but they contain cyanide," said Fergus M. Clydesdale, a professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts. "Oranges have methanol, which is very toxic. And we’ve been eating those for thousands of years." Professor Clydesdale also pointed out that the body is made of chemicals, and that we eat partly to replenish those chemicals with chemicals from food.

In another evisceration at Gawker, a scientist (who also happens to blog as Science Babe) highlighted more of Hari's wrongness:

If you want proof that Hari doesn't research anything before she puts it online, look no further than this article on airplanes, which she deleted from her site. She claimed that pilots control the air in an airplane, so you should sit near the front to breathe better air. She wrote that passengers are sometimes sprayed with pesticides before flights, and that airplane air is pumped full of nitrogen.

Please recall high school science, in which you hopefully learned that the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. Also, if anyone has personally been sprayed with pesticides before a flight, please email me, I would love to talk to you about it (not really).*

The other piece of writing that she unsuccessfully attempted to cleanse from the bowels of the internet claimed that microwaves are like small nuclear reactors, and they make water crystalize the same way it does when you say "Hitler" or "Satan" to it, because water has ears and a grasp of early twentieth-century European dictators.

If only Hari's millions of devoted fans would read this.

*Note: This part of the Food Babe's tirade isn't entirely wrong. Passenger airplanes do sometimes use pesticides, particularly on flights from countries with malaria or other mosquito-borne diseases. The Department of Transportation, however, says this: "[T]he Report of the Informal Consultation on Aircraft Disinsection sponsored by the World Health Organization concluded that aircraft disinsection, if performed appropriately, would not present a risk to human health." (Though it does add that "some individuals may experience transient discomfort following aircraft disinsection by aerosol application.")

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