Which came first, the chicken consumer or the Food Babe?

Rephrasing the question: Did ever-present fear of “frankenfood” in the consumer space allow the Food Babe, Vani Hari, to proliferate into a full-fledged media company with a book and speaking engagements?

Or did Hari, an attractive 36-year-old food activist from Charlotte, N.C., set out with money in mind as she battled Chick-fil-A and Subway, among others, in changing their ingredients?

Whatever Hari’s intentions, the endeavors began with a hospitalization due to a poor diet, she said on her website. In 2011, she started the Food Babe blog, reportedly garnering 54 million visits in 2014, fighting against ingredients, chemicals and additives in food. With her followers, dubbed the “Food Babe Army,” she raises campaigns and petition drives, using persuasive associations to steer followers clear of “unhealthy” foods.

Breaking the glass house

But, not everything Hari claims is backed up with clear, or any, science. While the Food Babe’s 1 million Facebook followers might be excited to take down big food companies, many scientists have called the emotional social media and petition wars she wages unreasonable and fear-mongering.  

Three such people decided to take the Food Babe on directly, fighting her claims line-by-line. Marc Draco, Kavin Senapathy, and Mark Alsip wrote The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House. They hold unique backgrounds, combining to provide science, psychology and some publishing power to approach the subject matter of the science and marketing behind the Food Babe.

It started when Draco and Alsip got into their own high-brow discussion about whether the chromosomes in chickens and mammals were the same. That joking discussion through a pro-science Facebook group eventually turned into a Food Babe-focused group, and then an e-book called 50 Shards of Vain.

Draco is credited by his coauthors as starting the subject. He writes on everything from science to atheism, and says he has a keen respect for farmers. The United Kingdom resident also has a niche for studying the psychology and biological processes that make people believe what someone tells them.

Alsip writes the skeptical science blog “Bad Science Debunked,” and with his computer science background is a member of the IDEX II Imagery Data Exploitation System project on display at the Smithsonian Museum, which can archive and catalogue images for intelligence analysts.

Mark Alsip

The third author, Senapathy, describes herself as a quack-fighting mom and science advocate who contributes regularly to Forbes magazine and several other science projects.

University of Florida Horticulture professor, Kevin Folta, an outspoken science advocate, agreed to write the foreword to the book. Since then, Folta has stopped speaking outside of his profession due to threats and acts against his family and research, and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sex, science and saturation

The book covers the why, how and what in Hari’s approach to persuasion. More than 300 of the book’s 400 pages are dedicated to directly disputing the claims made by the Food Babe and other food activists. Another 20 pages are dedicated to “how” so many are persuaded to believe.

“The intention of the book isn’t just to take down or debunk Vani Hari,” Senapathy said. “But because she’s one of the most prevalent in the arenas of food, health, chemicals and food phobia, we use her as a framework.”

The book works as a holiday table reference guide with family, or as a quick read to help keep up on the science consumers think they are hearing.

“When someone says, ‘Ah, this is banned in Europe,’” Draco said, “You can say, ‘Wait a minute, no it’s not... read this right there.’”

Although the book has been published and is available for sale, the opposition isn’t laying down and agreeing with everything in it.

Senapathy said she’s received death threats, been accused of having a made up name, and not even being a real person. Alsip received similar comments, but was also attacked for not being qualified to comment on science, despite having the same degree as Hari.

“We’ve never criticized Food Babe, environmentalist Vandana Shiva, or anyone for not being scientists and not having those backgrounds,” Alsip said. “The difference is that nonscientists can and should be science communicators and science advocates, because scientists, themselves, often don’t have the time or communication skills to do that.”

But science is tough, as even these pro-science authors came to realize through things like the connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s. That dispute dates back to a 1988 event in Camelford, England, in which a large amount of an aluminum compound was found in water for several weeks.

Years later, in 2004, a woman from Camelford died after an aggressive bout of Alzheimer’s, which was linked to the aluminum by one doctor and one doctor only. Although Alsip and Draco originally held different sides of the issue, being both pro-science themselves, they sorted through the literature (or lack thereof in this case) and found there is no bearing to believe aluminum itself is harmful. 

The dispute shows sometimes what you hear first is the easiest thing to believe, and proves the reason farmers need to keep sharing their stories whenever possible.

“That first story is invariably what Dr. Joseph Mercola, who pushes the aluminum claim, and Vani Hari point to – this incident in Camelford,” Draco said.

Ironically, or maybe sadly, although Dr. Mercola, an alternative medicine advocate, and Hari, the Food Babe, both demonize aluminum, they also both sell products that contain aluminum.

“Finding the ingredients that these people demonize in products that they’re selling, that’s Mark Alsip’s big thing,” Senapathy said, noting Alsip has found more than 40 demonized ingredients in products they sell. “He does it and he does it well.”

What are the biggest Food Babe blunders?

“I have so many,” Senapathy responded, laughing, when contemplating the biggest liberties taken from science. “I would say definitely that it’s ‘natural is better than synthetic.’ And then that applies directly to GM versus organic foods.”

For Alsip, he cannot stand the hypocrisy.

“I recently lost a loved one to cancer,” Alsip said, “And Vani Hari spreads a lot of cancer woos. The relative that I lost was out there searching for answers. ‘Maybe if I eat this product, or don’t get this shot, or whatever, I’m going to live. It’s going to help me.’ And she ends up buying the very same products that have the same ingredients in them that Hari is telling her is bad for her. I see people getting ripped off like this. Righteous indignation. It bothers me to see this happening.”

Sex appeal is a huge reason this all works, Draco said. He calls it “toxic charisma,” and is writing a book on the subject. Admitting he’s no expert on everything, Draco noted humans do have a biological need to reproduce at the most basic level. Therefore, people judge, and his definition of “toxic charisma” involves simply having good looks.

“Hari is a very attractive woman. I don’t think any of us could deny that,” Draco said. “Men, and woman, strangely enough, are spellbound by this. This isn’t conjecture, this is hard science. This includes even simple things, like facial structure, hair color, eye cleanliness and size of lips. This is why particular women plump up their lips, breast size and worry about body shape.”

And, Draco said, those things can be enhanced further by great photographers and graphics experts, which he said Hari has access to. They can give her access as to how to wear her hair, exposing the jugular vein to appear vulnerable, and thus more believable.

“Or her wide-eyed, childlike look where she looks up into camera with a beaming smile,” Draco said. “It screams, ‘Look at me, I’m absolutely not threatening.’

“Dr. Oz is another one. The thing about Oz, Hari and Dr. Mercola are that they’re all reasonably goodlooking people, in the grand scheme of things. And they’re very, very, very confident.”

Should you pick a fight?

If people realize someone is being a hypocrite, using sex appeal to get what they want, or just plain getting the science wrong, should they do something about it in engaging with their followers?

Kavin Senapathy

“That’s a point of contention,” Senapathy said. “It’s an ongoing debate. It depends on who you are and what your objectives are. I don’t see anything wrong with people debating on Facebook, in threads and things, but I like to say that swaying someone from a non-evidence-based position, whether that be a loved one, or a friend or some stranger on the Internet, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.

“So, of course, we do love to preach to the choir, but to me the important audience is that middle ground, which is larger and less vocal than the extreme Food Babe Army member.”

Alsip contends people should talk about these things as often as they can, in an effort to inoculate people against the toxic charisma.

“Vani Hari is going to get her free advertising whether we like it or not,” Alsip said. “The Internet is out there, and she’s using it very well. But if we can, like a vaccine, build up some immunity in the people that haven’t heard of her yet, we’re doing good. I hope we are. That’s what I hope to get out of this.”

We don’t get it right all of the time

The authors are similar to science-loving farmers.

“Without farmers, we’d never survive,” Draco said.

Science-loving farmers tend to support businesses that support their practices, while boycotting those that don’t. Each of these authors also take their own stand, personally boycotting places like Whole Foods, Chipotle or GMO-free verified labels. But they are quick to admit those who claim to be “science first” don’t always get it right.

“We are all the function of a very complicated neuroscience which is still being developed – critical thinking and reasoning,” Draco said. “We don’t really understand how the brain works all that well. We’d like to think that we do but the reality of it is that we don’t.”

As the brain absorbs more information, opinions and known “facts” can change slightly. But, Draco said, it takes a huge moment and strong amount of critical thinking for people to throw away all preconceived notions on a subject and turn 180 degrees in their thinking.

“Imagine how difficult that is,” Draco said. “We’ve almost got to completely disagree with our own preconceived ideas.”

Senapathy agreed. “Scientists, number one, aren’t infallible. Number two, when they start seeking or publishing work outside of their fields of study or when they have an agenda, or both, can be hypocritical, either intentionally or unintentionally. Even scientists are subject to confirmation bias, which is why sometimes it’s best to look not at one study, but at analysis or a number of studies together, to make up for that.”

So stay awake, and be aware.

Senapathy painfully admits she even made terrible mistakes based on sex appeal in the past. “Yeah, I fell for Dr. Oz, way back in the day. I’m embarrassed to admit I once bought one of his supplements. This was years ago, before I was really into examining this stuff.

“It gets to all of us at times.”