"Food Babe" Vani Hari and her legion of fans have petitioned to get the "yoga mat" out of Subway sandwiches and the synthetic coloring out of Kraft's macaroni & cheese. But since all food is comprised of chemicals, knowing the difference between a hazardous chemical and a non-carcinogenic one is imperative. Bob speaks with Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and blogger at The Culture of Chemistry and Slate, about what "Food Babe" may be getting wrong.
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BOB: Who, you might ask, petitioned to get the yoga mat out of your Subway sandwich, and the synthetic coal tar out of your kid’s mac n cheese? Ah, that would be the Food Babe. That’s what self-styled “Food Investigator” Vani Hari does. She’s built up a huge internet following by scouring food labels for frightening chemicals, and unleashing her followers on the offending companies. Thus, Hari told us, McDonald's, Kraft, General Mills and Panera Bread, amongst others, have pledged to remove one chemical or another from their foods.
Here’s Hari on Fox News last Halloween time -- which is to say, last pumpkin spice latte season:
HARI: One of the things I found out about the pumpkin spice lattes... it has two doses of caramel coloring level four. And caramel coloring level four, according to the national toxicity program and the international agency for research on cancer, have said that these ingredients are linked to cancer.
Never mind that there’s no reason to believe that the coloring agent is dangerous
to humans in the concentrations used in food, Starbucks has vowed to look into phasing it out. But it won’t get rid of the acrylamide, a chemical on the same cancer-causing chemical list. That’s because it’s in coffee.
Of course, everything we eat and drink is composed entirely of chemicals, including dihydrogen monoxide, otherwise known as “water.” That’s why the Food Babe has been savaged by journalists and scientists: Her campaign against chemicals seems to be indiscriminate, and based on flimsy science. One writer called her “the Jenny McCarthy of food.”
Among her critics is Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and blogger at The Culture of Chemistry and Slate. She explained why that yoga mat chemical azodicarbonamide would be in our bread in the first place.
FRANCL: In your bread it’s not hazardous to you, it helps to stabilize the foam; bread is just essentially just a foam. The trouble with that chemical is that it's huge respiratory irritant. So for example it's banned in the EU, not because it's so hazardous to eat - in fact when you eat it it looks a lot like a protein and so your body knows how to take that molecule apart and turn it into something it can use - but for the workers who work with it, it's a real hazard. And so ethically it's not a great idea to be eating bread that has that in it, cause there are all these workers exposed to this very potent respiratory irritant.
BOB: michelle, please tell me about beaver anus and why I should not be afraid of it.
FRANCL: Ah, you're talking about castoreum. Found in sacs near the beaver's butt, and it's been used for 2000 years. And it turns out to taste a little bit like vanilla, and it's got a pretty pungent smell to it. The FDA recognizes it as safe. You shouldn't be afraid of it because it's not really used anywhere. It costs about 640 dollars to buy enough of that to fill up a 4 ounce bottle. So it isn't in your vanilla ice cream, and it's not in your oatmeal. It might be in an expensive perfume or aftershave you use.
BOB: However, the Food Babe says it is in those things and we should all adjust our diets accordingly.
FRANCL: Well I think she enjoys the fact that beaver butt is incredibly good linkbait. If you look at her food babe blog, it's on there about 60 times, and in the book she's written recently it appears over and over again.
BOB: Hari's following, I guess has to do with a couple of things. Number one is that she's extremely attractive. The other thing is that these chemicals just sound scary. There's a term for this: processing fluency?
FRANCL: Right. We trust material that is familiar, words that we can pronounce. Lots of chemical terms come from the Greek so they have a lot of harsh sounding vowels and consonant mixes in them, oxidane, methotrexate: they sound scary. But something like four marvel's powder sounds very safe. you know what powder is, you know what four is. Marvels, that sounds like something that might be good for you. It's actually a medicine but it doesn't sound like a medicine, right? It sounds safe and friendly. That's processing fluency.
BOB: Four marvels powder - you plucked this from a story in the NY Times magazine. Can you tell me about it?
FRANCL: Yep, her son had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which you know is incredibly painful. Her physician suggested methotrexate, which is an anticancer drug, sounds nasty, and in fact, in high doses is quite nasty. She read all the side effects information, and she talked to a friend of a friend - ah well my son uses four marvels powder, and Montmorency cherry juice, which i said in the article sounds like a disney princess might use. The trouble is is that four marvels powder sounds much friendlier than methotrexate, but in fact includes compounds that like methotrexate, can damage your liver. And yet she was giving unknown doses to this on her kid on top of something else that was also liver toxic. Part of it was this idea of chemophobia, that we're blind to the chemicals around us. She sees the chemical in the prescribing information, but the four marvels powder comes in a little envelope and doesn't have that attached to it so she doesn't see it.
BOB: So the Food Babe and her fellow travelers aren't necessarily citing incorrect facts, but they're depriving us of the context we need to make informed dietary and health decisions. Is there anything that she has offered as advice that you consider particularly irresponsible?
FRANCL: Well, in the Food Babe's book she talks about you shouldn't drink pasteurized milk, because it destroys the phosphates, enzymes involved in calcium uptake. we make our own phosphates. But drinking unpasteurized milk is dangerous; people die from that.
BOB: What is it in us do you suppose that makes us want to take medical and dietary advice from some page on the internet while being skeptical of what we're told by nutritionists, organic chemists, physicians and other trained professionals.
FRANCL: Ben Goldacre who's a physician and science writer in Britain had an interesting take on this. he said that we portray science as incomprehensible, and the people who do it as kind of wacky and a bit off, you know? Think of Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory right? Part of it is the language that scientists use, and I think the last piece is that we have a distrust of scientists because science has also brought us things that are not so good. We have DDT as a pesticide.
BOB: Nobel prize winner Fritz Haber created mustard gas.
FRANCL: And my freshman chemistry teacher Sherri Rowland discovered that you were killing off the ozone layer with the fluorocarbons, which we thought to be inert. So chemistry has not always been benign. And I think that's another piece that makes it an uphill battle.
BOB: We tried to get in touch with Vani Hari, and she declined to join us for an interview. And she has not been particularly hospitable to criticism online. I know that at one point you did try to get the ear of Vani Hari, and you were stymied. Tell me about glutamates.
FRANCL: Okay yeah, so she had a post on her blog about monosodium glutamate free tomato soup, but tomatoes contain free glutamate, that's actually one of the reasons they're used so much in cooking, because it really bring out the flavor. And you put in salt, which contains sodium. So you're making monosodium glutamate in this soup. 400mg a serving/. So I put on her site this soup contains 400mg of glutamate per service. Andthe comment disappeared. And I thought, did i forget to click publish? And I tried 4 times and every time it disappeared. I think that part of it is that she's having a hard time engaging the science, and so what she does is she turns and engages the people. And if she can find a spot to pull and poke and say well you must be employed by Monsanto, or a company that made chemicals at one time, that immediately destroys any credibility you have. She of course is paid by a lot of food companies herself.
BOB: And foods are entirely composed of what?
BOB; Yeah, thank you very much.
FRANCL: You're very welcome.
BOB: Michelle Francl is a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College. She blogs at the culture of Chemistry and Slate.
We asked Vani Hari for an interview many times over the past three weeks. Instead, her book publicist sent us a statement, that says, in part, quote: “The attacks on me and this movement is indeed another distraction from the need to reform our food system, but nonetheless this is a sign we are winning. Many food industry professionals and chemists are threatened by my work because millions of people are realizing they do not want artificial or synthetic additives in their food.”