“Food for thoughtless” (Food Babe)

YOGAMATLast month, I highlighted Breatharians, a tiny group of extreme dieters. Vegetarians eschew meat, vegans bypass all animal byproducts, and fruitarians consume only fruits and seeds. The most serious fruitarians consider apple-picking off limits and munch only on fruit that has fallen to the ground. Breatharians take these restrictions even further and limit themselves to water.

I figured this was the most restrictive diet possible until I learned of Vani Hari. She has declared, “There is no acceptable level of chemical to ingest, ever.” This means no water, no salt, no sunscreen, and no organic fruits and vegetables, with their polyphenols. A diabetic following her advice would refuse insulin.

What Hari probably meant was that we should not ingest synthetic chemicals, and her inability to make this distinction demonstrates her lack of science acumen, a key point since she dispenses nutritional advice and attempts to control what goes into our food. She does this under the moniker Food Babe.

Her method is to first find the most polysyllabic chemical possible. Then she will point out this chemical is in the motor oil you put in your car and in the Count Chocula you put in your mouth. Finally, she gets her sizable following to mobilize against this indignation.

Her best-known campaign targeted Subway because its bread contained azodicarbonamide (C2H4O2N4), a chemical also found in yoga mats. Subway removed the chemical, but that didn’t make your turkey and provolone any safer, not that it was ever dangerous. The science blogger Orac put it this way: “Azodicarbonamide is a safe chemical that disappears during the baking. It’s a maturing agent that makes bread dough rise better and improves its handling properties, yielding doughs that hold together better during kneading.”

So a diner should be no more outraged that his sandwich contained a mat chemical than a yoga practitioner should be upset that his padding contained a sandwich chemical. But Food Babe army members were upset, since they shared their leader’s ignorance about chemicals’ multifaceted nature. As Yvette d’Entremont of Gawker noted, “A substance can be used for more than one thing perfectly safely, and it doesn’t mean that your bread is made of a yoga mat if it happens to contain azodicarbonamide, a dough-softening agent. It simply means your bread is composed of chemicals, like everything else you eat.”

Kevin Folta, chairman of the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department, called azodicarbonamide “nothing more than a digestible organic molecule, and one that helps bakery products maintain uniformity and structure over time.”

Hari responded to the Gawker article with her usual mix of self-congratulation and genetic fallacies. About Folta, she wrote, “He does not specialize in health or nutrition. Rather he is a crop scientist specializing in GMOs, who seeks industry funding and support for this research.”

Folta called this untrue, but even if accurate, would be unrelated to his argument’s validity. On her website, Hari says of her critics, “A high percentage of the ‘expert’ scientists, doctors, registered dietitians, and nutritionists have a financial relationship with the entities I investigate.” She provides no evidence of this, which even if true, again says nothing about the legitimacy of the points.

Hari claims to prefer natural products, yet has railed against isinglass, which occurs naturally in dried swim bladders of fish. Granted, I had never heard of isinglass, nor knew of its origins, before I heard it associated with Hari. But I’m not claiming to be a world class consumer advocate with more knowledge of nutrition and chemistry than those with Ph.D.s in the fields. So the point here is not Hari’s hypocrisy, but her lack of scientific understanding.

A similar incident was her campaign to get cereal companies to eliminate butylated hydroxytoluene from its products. It was later discovered that Hari was selling cosmetic products that contained this chemical. If this were my whole argument, it would be the Appeal to Hypocrisy, and it would be the type of logical fallacy I seek to avoid. But again, the point is not hypocrisy, but scientific ignorance. She has no idea what chemicals are used for, fails to realize they have multiple benefits, and is either ignorant or apathetic about the fact that dosage determines toxicity.

More ignorance was on display when she campaigned against propylene glycol being in our beer, when it was actually propylene glycol alginate. Despite the similar names, the chemicals have substantially different structures. Like Hari, my chemistry ignorance is profound, but I’m not out parading around about it while sanctimoniously demanding change.

Following my column on the Paleo diet, a reader pointed out that it includes an emphasis on leafy greens, so my claim that it lacks fiber was erroneous. I acknowledged my blunder and thanked him for pointing it out. I want all nonsense exposed, even if it’s on my blog. I did not brand him a kale industry shill and seek out 200 studies on greens, hoping one of them would contain a single line suggesting they are a poor source of fiber.

So perhaps I’m being too kind when I call Hari chemically ignorant, since deliberately stupid might be the more accurate term. She is also outrageously selective with the facts she uses to build assertions. In the same sentence as “Subway bread,” she cited WHO warnings against azodicarbonamide. Yet, the WHO report read, “Azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers.” The danger is to a factory worker repeatedly exposed to its concentrated form. But to Hari, this is no different than having a ham sandwich.

She combines these misrepresentations with an Appeal to Yuckiness, such as warning that “secretions from a beaver’s anal glands” are in vanilla ice cream. This appeal makes no scientific claim, demonstrates no harm, and again highlights her misunderstanding that chemicals are safely used for different benefits. If anyone should be outraged, it’s the beaver for what’s being done to his private parts.

The Food Babe has found a willing army whose minions fail to understand that a chemical’s danger is not determined by how difficult it is to pronounce. They don’t realize that their inability to comprehend something is not an argument for it being unsafe.  Hari will declare a chemical dangerous without acknowledging that’s true only at high doses, in some cases so astronomical you would have to swallow hundreds of times the usual amount. Almost anything can be dangerous if it’s taken to an extreme, as demonstrated by the people who die from a water overdose. Two Tylenol will temporarily take away your toothache. Two bottles of Tylenol will permanently take away your toothache, along with your breath and heartbeat. Some chemicals or elements are deadly in any amount, but for most, it’s the dosage that determines the danger. In her Gawker takedown of Hari, d’Entremont pointed out that vinegar is also used a disinfectant, can cause chemical burns, and is used in industrial labs for hydrolysis reactions.

Another frequent Hari tactic is citing a chemical’s illicitness in some countries as evidence that it’s dangerous. By this logic, its legal nature elsewhere would be proof of its safety. A product’s legality has no impact on its lethality.

Her FAQ features a litany of pseudoscience and logical fallacies. For instance, she wrote, “We are a nation full of inexplicable illness.” Nope. Some illnesses are unexplained, but none are inexplicable. We should continue to search for causes and cures, not blame it on substances because they are 18 letters long.

Later in the ramble, she writes, “For years, expert food scientists and the FDA said trans fats were safe for consumption. Now, the CDC estimates that trans fats are linked to 7,000 to 20,000 heart attacks per year!” Rather than being the anti-science point she hoped to make, this highlights that science is a self-investigating, self-correcting process that will eventually get it right. It is a non sequitur to use this process to rail against compounds in our nachos.

She also confuses multiple anecdotes with data, harping, “I have more energy now than I did 10 years ago! Others have also conducted the same experiments, using their bodies and personal experience, and have come to a similar conclusion.”

While she sticks mainly to food, Hari has ventured somewhat onto anti-vaccine terrain, and declared she won’t put into her body any flu vaccine components. This means no water, so I applaud her consistency. Also off limits are salt and formaldehyde-containing apples. Another no-no are histidines, which the liver produces naturally. But maybe Hari can gulp her cold-pressed organic kiwi juice and flush out those pesky essential amino acids.


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