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Environment

The Food Babe Takes on Her Critics

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The Vani Hari success story is remarkable. Here's a synopsis from a recently syndicated article published in the Chicago Tribune:

Less than four years ago, Hari didn't even have a Twitter or Facebook account. She was afraid of social media, worried a slip of the thumb could jeopardize her consulting contracts implementing technology and strategy at Bank of America and other financial institutions. Now, photos on Hari's website and blog flaunt her perfectly applied cosmetics, shiny black hair and petite frame. She has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America and Inside Edition. Hari's appeal stems in part from her use of Web video. One opens with her doing a back-bend in a low-cut exercise top. She greets the viewer, saying how much she loves yoga and how hungry it makes her. Then she bites off a corner of her yoga mat. "Umm," she says. "Wake up people. Take a look at the ingredients in Subway's nine-grain bread. Did you know that one of them is the same ingredients found in yoga mats?

In case you're not making the connection, Hari is famously known as the Food Babe, a nickname her husband gave her when she switched careers and morphed virtually overnight into a crusading food activist. Today, she is a force to be reckoned with, someone who has spearheaded several successful campaigns against major food companies. The ridiculous yoga mat chemical scare was her breakout moment. In September, Bloomberg Businessweektook note of her meteoric rise:

Food Babe, the nom de blog for Vani Hari, a 35-year-old banking consultant turned food activist, has built an online audience by calling out companies from Starbucks (SBUX) to Chick-fil-A for using ingredients she deems harmful. She belongs to an emerging tribe of Web activists who use attention-grabbing—some say outlandish—methods to pressure companies to change their ways.

Last week NPRreported:

To followers on her website and on social media, who are known as the Food Babe Army, Hari is a hero. And with a book and TV development deal in the works, her platform is about to get a lot bigger. But as her profile grows, so too do the criticisms of her approach. Detractors, many of them academics, say she stokes unfounded fears about what's in our food to garner publicity.

You can read many of those criticisms here (David Gorski); here (Trevor Butterworth); here and here (both from Steven Novella); here (Mark Crislip); here (David Kroll); here (Wanda Patsche); here, (Kevin Folta); and here and here (both from Maureen Ogle). These are detailed, hard-hitting blog posts, mostly from skeptics and scientists, material that has been mined by journalists for recent articles on Hari. The Food Babe is not happy with this development. The other day Hari published at her website a long response to these "attacks." She starts out by invoking Gandhi. Then she summarizes the "incredible amount of success" she and her "Food Babe army" have experienced the past three years. She goes on to suggest that the "powerful chemical companies and food giants of the world" are not going to stand for this anymore. And, as she expected, "the people who wish to keep the status quo are attacking me personally while simultaneously trying to discredit the entire Good Food Movement." Here's how she sees it:

There’s a group of aggressive scientists, biased doctors, skeptics, agribusiness publicists, lobbyists (and their anonymous webpages and social media sites), along with in some cases, well intended but misinformed people (influenced by propaganda) attacking our work, other consumer advocacy groups, my partners, my friends and me, personally. Instead of focusing on the issues at hand I’ve raised about the food industry, their go-to criticisms are ad hominem personal attacks: they’ve attacked me, as a woman, in ways they’d never attack my male colleagues. I am personally being subjected to hate speech, harassment and cyber-bullying on a daily basis.

It's worth noting that she lumps the criticism and attacks together, so as not to differentiate between any legitimate, bylined critiques and anonymous web pages or trolling Facebook commenters. Additionally, Food Babe characterizes all the disapproval as personal attacks, cyber-bullying and harassment. It's a brazen attempt to delegitimize any criticism of her. It wouldn't potentially work, either, if she didn't highlight a bunch of the disgusting (and threatening) comments sent to her via Twitter and Facebook, which she does. Those remarks are truly revolting. I feel terrible for anyone on the receiving end of such abuse. Women, as we have come to learn, are treated viciously online. The anonymous cretins that behave this way should be outed, too, so I don't have the slightest problem with Hari posting the ugly stuff on her website, for all to see. But I do take issue with her using it as a shield to deflect legitimate criticism of her unscientific methods and assertions. If you have the time, I encourage you to go back to those links I provided above and read all the critiques. See for yourself if those writers are attacking her in a personal manner or making reasoned critiques. (Granted, several of the writers have a sarcastic tone.) I also have read most of the media articles from recent months that include quotes from her various critics and came across only one instance (in a Chicago Tribunepiece) that struck me as sexist:

"She gets on all these talk shows partly because she is easier to look at," Joe Schwarcz, who runs the Office for Science & Society, a department at McGill University in Montreal dedicated to sorting out pseudoscience.

I realize Hari calls herself the Food Babe, but her appearance should not be the basis for any criticism of her. Hey, I've been on TV a few times and I'm not easy to look at. Now, there is a chatty world on Facebook that I don't pay attention to, which also accounts for some of the ugly barbs thrown at the Food Babe. Kavin Sanepathy, who has been critical of Hari, wrote about this months ago:

Let me be candid before continuing – Facebook groups like Chow Babe, Food Hunk, Science Babe, GMOLOL, and more are not only wonderful for their entertainment value. These fun groups herald crucial perspectives–their members break down unscientific food-related rampages from Food Babe and the likes with bona fide scientific evidence and data. These groups’ followers include scientists, writers, and skeptics. These are the crusaders of the internet, defending the public from the likes of miscreants like the #foodbabearmy. Every now and then however, I’ll see something on these and similar pages that grinds my mommy/feminist gears. I’ve seen Food Babe called names like, “slut,” “bitch,” and “stupid bitch.” These slurs undermine the valuable and credible arguments against Food Babe’s pseudo-scientific agenda.

Absolutely. As for her agenda, to learn more about that and how she defends it against her detractors, do read the rest of her post. It speaks for itself.

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