Vani Hari, known to most as The Food Babe and to skeptics as The FUD Babe, is a blogger, affiliate marketer and self-styled consumer activist who offers a potent and media-friendly mix of good looks and bad science. She has been described as “the Jenny McCarthy of the food industry”.
Her signature tactic is rallying credulous followers via her Twitter hashtag #FoodBabeArmy to try to coerce businesses into making changes to products based on alarmist claims about their ingredients - a process colloquially known as “quackmail”. In this she has been notably successful despite the absence of any actual evidence that the ingredients are in any way harmful.
Targets to date include Chick-fil-A, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Kraft Foods, Subway and brewery giants Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. Several have caved in to the social media pressure and removed sometimes entirely benign ingredients. [More details on a couple of examples appear in the reference footnotes below.]
Hari started her “Food Babe” blog in 2011 using skills learned as a computer science graduate and in her job as a management consultant for Accenture. She has no known qualifications in chemistry, biology, dietetics or any other subject relevant to the science of food. She does, however, have evident talent for monetising social media campaigns: many of the products she hypes are linked to direct sales pages via affiliate marketing links meaning that she gets a cut from followers who buy these products and others from the same store. She also charges substantial speaking fees, reportedly $6,000 for one engagement, which is quite a chunk of change for promoting your personal brand. Nice work if you can get it.
When your body is in the air, at a seriously high altitude, your body under goes some serious pressure. Just think about it – Airplanes thrive in places we don’t. You are traveling in a pressurized cabin, and when your body is pressurized, it gets really compressed!
Her principal contribution to the woo-sphere is spreading chemophobia, pointing to the scary-sounding names of every-day chemicals in order to whip up hysteria about ingredients in common foodstuffs. Skeptics will be well aware of the naturalistic fallacy, with its false dichotomy between natural (thus good, like motherhood, apple pie and botulinum toxin) and artificial (thus evil, like pollution, antibiotics and life support machines).
It’s an easy and fun game to play: pears contain formaldehyde, bananas are radioactive, most fruits contain 2-Oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4-lactone-2,3-enediol, and all commercially available drinks are full of dihydrogen monoxide. This is of course perfectly fine as none of these appear in yoga mats. Most of the chemicals Hari focuses on are either tested and not toxic at permitted levels, or “generally recognized as safe”, which is pretty much the same rationale under which vitamins, supplements and homeopathy are allowed to be sold. OK, bad example -- only homeopathy is pretty much guaranteed to be inert.
Peddlers of nonsense to the credulous know their base: you won’t get far without attacking GMOs and - the One Evil To Rule Them All - vaccines. Hari is no exception. In addition to the bald assumption that GMOs are necessarily bad, she has urged followers not to get vaccinated against flu, overstating the risks and understating the benefits.
The real problem, though, is that her basic research skills appear to be essentially non-existent. Can you trust the advice of someone who talks about the presence of fish swim bladder in beer without noticing that it’s been common and open practice for over two centuries? Who lists the contents of beer without mentioning the class 1 carcinogen in every bottle – alcohol?  Who claims that microwaves cause crystals to form in water that are like those induced by evil thoughts?  Who talks about the pressurization of aircraft cabins and the nitrogen content of cabin air, without finding out what the actual pressure is, and the composition of regular air (that has nitrogen)? 
Sometimes her agenda places her with some pretty unsavory bedfellows. One target of her campaigning, glutamic acid, is drawn from the work of the egregious Russell Blaylock, who likens Obamacare to the Nazis (Godwin’s law notwithstanding) and claims that narcotics were introduced to America by the Soviet Union to weaken resistance to collectivization. Cranks, especially dangerous ones, thrive on the halo effect of celebrity endorsements from people like Hari.
But let’s be fair here: Chick-fil-A will no longer be using birds routinely fed on antibiotics, which is actually a good thing. Should we not congratulate her for this?
Well, no. The problem of antimicrobial resistance is much bigger than one firm, and in the US antibiotics are advertised direct to the consumer and can be obtained without prescription. Hari’s campaign barely touches the surface of the wider problem of antimicrobial resistance.
Is the dye in Kraft macaroni and cheese worse than the calorie content and the level of saturated fats? Unlikely.
Is the presence of traces of propylene glycol in beer as much of an issue as the presence of gluten, with up to 0.5% of the population likely to be coeliac or otherwise gluten intolerant? Probably not.
Is the nitrogen content of air on a plane as much of a concern as the pollution the plane itself emits? Not likely. What’s worse: the carefully tested insecticides used to prevent import of as serious disease (malaria), or the presence of organic compounds in cabin air? Who knows?
Consumer protection is great, an it is a positive thing to advocate involvement when there are corporate interests that impact health, but the clearest course is to stick with reality-based critiques and campaigns.
Overall, Hari often doesn’t know what she’s writing about and doesn’t seem to care much. Her activism stops short of anything meaningful or important (better diet, less booze, fewer flights) in favor of superficial “quacktivism” which seems designed to raise her profile as much as to benefit consumers. She repeats the claims of cranks and charlatans as if they were fact, and seems to arrive at some conclusions by proctomancy.
Anything she says can and should be ignored: it may be right, it may be wrong, you may not be able to tell and she certainly won’t, and so much of it has been shown to be bogus that it’s simply safer to look elsewhere.
[Author's Note: This article has taken longer to prepare than it should because, oddly enough, since skeptics bean critiquing the work of Hari, several of the more widely ridiculed pages have disappeared from her blog and have been actively purged from the Google cache - something that normally happens only when the webmaster specifically requests removal of a page. Some have even been expunged from the Wayback Machine, where the content was available until 12 November 2014. She may be scientifically and medically ignorant, but she’s certainly skilled at online reputation management.]
1. Hari wrote that Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors “even use fish swim bladders” in the brewing process. Isinglass (a product derived from, yes, fish swim bladders) has been used in clarifying beer and wine since the 18th Century. Other ingredients she fingered in beer include high-fructose corn syrup, stabilizers and artificial flavoring, “which have been linked to obesity, allergies, hyperactivity and gastrointestinal problems” - the phrase “have been linked to” in this case basically boils down to “have no provable link to, but some people have speculated, and that’s good enough for us”.
Ironically she missed gluten, which is found in most beers and ales, and of course alcohol, which is the most toxic ingredient in beer by a very wide margin. She also missed the fact that most of these beers are, frankly, pretty bad. She’d have done the public a much greater service by pointing them to better quality craft-brewed beers, which are not only less likely to be mass produced using chemicals, but also taste much better and support family firms.
2. Microwave ovens are another bugaboo for the food babe [page originally here but no mirror is currently available, however, see Dr. Novella’s post linked below], including the fantastical notion that they cause water molecules to “form crystals” that resemble those exposed to "negative thoughts or beliefs," citing the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto. Such claims which are pure pseudoscience; she also references arch-proponent of quackery Dr. Joseph Mercola. Dr. Steven Novella states that "Hari's conclusions about microwaves are all demonstrably incorrect and at odds with the scientific evidence." Here’s a clue: if your beliefs are promoted as fact by What the Bleep Do We Know, then your beliefs need some serious attention in the reality department.
3. Among her earliest posts is one from November 2011 entitled “No Reason To Panic On The Plane” in which she discusses “[a] few facts (sic) about what airplanes do to your body” [Mirrored on a skeptic site for purposes of critical commentary under the Fair Use doctrine]:
Aircraft flying above about 4,000m (i.e. above the height of a decent-sized mountain) require cabin pressurization because otherwise the passengers would pass out from lack of oxygen. The cabin pressure at cruising altitude is typically equivalent to around 2,000m - the height of a small mountain but still considerably lower than the pressure at ground level. Nor is this the only howler:
The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.
One thing that will make people feel giddy and nauseous is people telling them that horrible things (which aren’t in fact horrible) will make them feel giddy and nauseous. Fearmongering like this leads to something called the “nocebo effect”.
“Did you know certain countries require that airplanes and even passengers be sprayed with pesticide before they take off? This means if you are visiting one of these countries you are breathing in these fumes potentially all flight, especially if they were sprayed on board. Horrific!”
One wonders why Hari missed radiation exposure, another small risk of airline flight, and also why someone so keen on promoting pseudoscience on the basis of purported environmental effects, would miss out the pollution and environmental toll of widespread commercial flight.