Q&A | Kavin Senapathy on Science Shaming the Fear-Mongering Food Babe
When activists don't expose the truth, they obscure it.
The Food Babe, Vani Hari, is hard to pin down. She’s a “food activist,” blogger, New York Times bestselling author, and, as journalist and pseudoscience debunker Kavin Senapathy points out in her new book The Fear Babe, a master at exploiting base, dumb fears.
By exposing the “hidden truths” about the food industry, Hari has amassed more than 1 million followers on Facebook and almost 100,000 on Twitter — her Food Babe Army — who happily march alongside her in her war on GMOs, food additives, and “toxins.” Hari’s claims, as critics have pointed out, are rarely rooted in actual evidence. But what does that matter when the face of wellness and healthy eating is so damn charismatic? The Food Babe fosters a culture of fear around the food we eat, says Senapathy, who’s also chewed out Neil Young at Forbes and Dr. Oz at Slate for parading thin science without basis.
Inverse talked to Senapathy about Hari’s public food-shaming stunts, her tactics, and what we can do to respond.
Why do people love the Food Babe so much?
She has done a great job of mobilizing a large number of followers because she is charismatic, she is attractive, and she is able to exploit fear to direct people to avoid certain foods. Fear is a very effective tactic because, after all, if a person believes that a certain additive or a certain food will harm them or their child, then of course they’re going to try to avoid those ingredients.
The Fear Babe frequently responds to critics by accusing them of being industry pawns. How do you argue the science with someone who doesn’t care to take it into account?
When someone like Vani Hari encounters people like me, science communicators, or even scientists who convey this information, they simply brush us off as industry, pro-GMO, pro-chemical, and even go as far as calling us industry shills. It’s hard for us to sway them. The important thing is that when we engage in discussions about this, people like me remain fact-based and try to remain calm, which is easier said than done. What’s important then is that the fence-sitters are observing these dialogues. It would be great to sway someone who is totally scared and anti-GMO and anti-synthetic chemicals, which happens from time to time, but to me they don’t really comprise the center of the target audience that I usually go for.
Let’s get down to what the Food Babe actually targets. What does she get wrong about GMOs?
People like her say that GMOs are unnatural and that organic food is the way nature intended it — or even the way God intended it. The fact is that the vast majority of all of the foods we eat are not natural. The term GMO in itself — I use it because it’s so common in the public lexicon — but I don’t like it because it’s scientifically arbitrary. GMOs, the way we talk about them, represent organisms that were engineered with modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. However, almost all the food that we eat, with the exception of certain wild herbs and mushrooms, have been genetically altered by humans. People like Vani Hari will argue that GMOs aren’t the same as selective breeding, which is kind of an extension of what nature would do. The truth is there are a lot of foods, including those that can be grown and sold as organic, that were created in very unnatural ways. This whole thing about GMOs being unnatural is a huge misconception.
Is there any value in her argument that labeling of GMOs should be mandatory?
I think GMO labeling should not be mandatory because, again, it’s scientifically arbitrary, and it will cause an unnecessary stigma around what GMOs are. When you label it like that, people see it as a warning label. I mean, the organic industry admits that the reason they want mandatory GMO labeling is because it’s the first step toward eliminating these technologies. Mandatory labeling will increase the cost of food. No matter what anti-GMO activists say about it increasing costs, it will.
The Food Babe is especially proud of — and is praised for — her “accomplishments,” like getting rid of the orange Kraft Dinner additive and the yoga mat chemical in Subway bread. Should we give her any credit?
They aren’t victories. They’re actually harmful. Number one, they contribute to an epidemic of a lack of critical thinking among Americans and increasingly among people around the world. But take, for example, the Subway yoga mat chemical campaign that she did: She demonized azodicarbonamide as “the yoga mat chemical” because you can find it in yoga mats and also in bread. She scared people into thinking that they’re eating the yoga mat chemical, and Subway caved, not because there’s anything wrong or bad about azodicarbonamide, which she says is harmful when inhaled. Well, sure, there are a lot of things that are harmful when inhaled. It doesn’t mean it’s harmful when you ingest them. So when Subway removed azodicarbonamide from their bread, she declared victory. This is anecdotal, but I can tell the bread isn’t as good anymore. It’s not as spongy, and the texture is now crumbly. You could call it victory, if that was her end-game, but I wouldn’t call it a good thing.
Even if these chemicals aren’t harmful, is there any way for a company to ignore the Food Babe’s claims without bringing bad press upon themselves?
That’s why I think of it as bullying. Sometimes you have to concede to bullies just to get them off your back.
Is there anything she’s helped to eliminate that’s actually harmful?
I don’t think so. We took almost a year to write this book and we haven’t found any chemical that she demonizes or successfully has a company remove their product that is actually harmful in the doses or the amount or method of ingestion. We haven’t found any of them being harmful. We’ve also found that there are chemicals or compounds — ingredients that she demonizes publically — that she’s actually selling products that contain them. So, really, it seems to me that she’s disingenuous. It’s for attention and financial gain.
What would happen if everyone started listening to her?
It would be hugely detrimental. Going back to GMOs, if everyone started listening to her, and I guess here we’re going to assume that government officials would listen to her, we would lose the technologies that are hugely beneficial to human health, nutrition, the environment and more. So, yeah, I can’t even imagine something like that happening. Of course it’s hypothetical, but to me it’s horrifying.
What’s the best way to retaliate?
I think the best way is to arm the public with “information radar” against people like the Food Babe or Dr. Oz or other charlatans like this. That won’t necessarily help, and that goes back to the idea that the book only uses the Food Babe as a framework to discuss some of the biggest food myths of our time and also to examine things against them. Even if we were to completely silence her, which we don’t necessarily want to do, someone else would pop up in her place. What we need is good science education. We need people to learn the difference between cherry-picked one-off studies and scientific consensus. We need people, when they encounter articles or links on the internet, to be able to determine whether that information is credible or not credible. We need a well-informed public who knows how to spot misinformation.
Have you met her in person?
I haven’t! I wonder if that’ll ever happen. She’s indirectly responded to things I’ve written, but I’m sure she would avoid that kind of face-to-face meeting. We did reach out to her to invite her to comment on this book and we know she received and saw that information, but she chose not to comment. I’ve always told people like her that I am happy to engage in dialogue of any form of their choosing, whether that be on the internet or video chat or in person, to have a dialogue. We’ll see.