Food Babe’s Ingredient Attacks Draw ‘Quackmail’ Backlash

Food Activist Vani Hari
Vani Hari holds signs that say "Label GMOs" during day two of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 5, 2012. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Food Babe breezes into a public radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina, clutching a $10 jar of raw juice and dressed from her morning workout -- Lululemon tank, sequined black Uggs and a charm necklace blessed in India.

Food Babe is the nom de blog for Vani Hari, a 35-year-old banking consultant turned food activist, who has built a loyal online audience by calling out companies from Starbucks Corp. to Chick-fil-A Inc. for ingredients she deems harmful. Hari has tapped into Americans’ growing disquiet about processed food with a simple overarching question: What if all the small amounts of artificial and synthetic ingredients we ingest add up to something that harms us? If it’s true that the dose makes the poison, “we don’t know the dose,” she says.

On this day in early February, Hari is savoring her latest coup, shaming the Subway sandwich chain over a chemical in its bread that’s also found in yoga mats. With her blog attracting as many as 4 million visitors a month, Hari has become accustomed to dishing out criticism, not deflecting it.

On NPR this day, that’s about to change.

After a friendly introduction and a clip of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart spoofing Subway’s yoga mat bread, the public radio host says: “Now, you are not a scientist.”

“Well, I’m a computer scientist, so I had to take a lot of engineering courses for that,” says Hari, with an awkward laugh. He bores in. “But you are not a food scientist. You’re not a chemist. You’re not a scientist in that aspect.” Then he quotes an editorial, in which a Yale School of Medicine neurologist calls the Subway claims “the worst example of pseudo-scientific fear-mongering I have seen in a while.”

Eating Fresh

Hari’s feet fidget under the desk. When the host asks if she bullied Subway into action, her voice cracks.

“Actually, the only person that’s bullying anyone here is Subway, by telling us we’re eating fresh,” she says.

Hari belongs to an emerging tribe of Web activists who use attention-grabbing -- some say outlandish -- methods to pressure companies to change their ways. In Mississippi, teenager Sarah Kavanaugh has successfully challenged ingredients in PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade. From Texas, Sharon Wilson runs Bluedaze.com, a site dedicated to ending hydraulic fracking.

While it’s legitimate to ask whether campaigns joined with the click of a mouse have staying power and depth, activist bloggers have put a spotlight on controversial issues of the day. In some cases, they’ve forced companies to respond.

After pressure from Kavanaugh, PepsiCo removed brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade. Wilson, widely credited with galvanizing the anti-fracking movement, forced the industry to defend itself.

Artificial Dyes

Kraft Foods Group Inc. removed artificial dyes from some of its Macaroni & Cheese after Hari dumped 270,000 signatures calling for the change at the company’s Chicago doorstep. Fast-food chain Chick-fil-A said it would remove antibiotics from its chicken after Hari chronicled more than 100 ingredients in its flagship sandwich.

Kraft and Subway say changes requested by Hari were already under consideration. Chick-fil-A said that after discussing antibiotics with Hari in 2012 subsequent research persuaded the company that many diners shared her concerns. PepsiCo said it began reformulating Gatorade before Kavanaugh petitioned the company and decided to announce the change after she raised questions about brominated vegetable oil.

Grabbing attention in a fragmented society often requires a heavy dose of hyperbole. There’s the catch. Hari’s claims about ominous-sounding yet little-used additives, including one derived from a beaver’s anal gland, go viral. They also give critics ammunition to dilute and even discredit her message.

Undue Attention

Since the NPR interview, one critic writing online in Forbes accused Hari of practicing “quackmail,” another compared her to widely criticized autism activist Jenny McCarthy and one encouraged her to “choke and die.” Because Hari sells ads on her website, detractors say it’s in her interest to generate controversy in exchange for eyeballs. Choosing Food Babe as a blog handle has prompted some critics to say she is using her looks to get undue attention.

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

In an interview, Hari said she underestimated the critical backlash and wondered aloud if the industry was engaging in a whisper campaign. As the pressure intensified in August, she vented to her Facebook fans: “They are attacking the messengers who are spreading the truth. They are hoping I, along with other activists, including you, just give up.”

Activist Empire

Food Babe runs her empire from an Apple Macbook Air on a small metal desk in the living room of her high-rise condo in Charlotte’s banking district. Hours after her public-radio interview, Hari has showered and changed into khaki jeans, a red T-shirt and gold sequined slippers to answer e-mails and read comments. Her husband, Finley Clarke, manages the website in a spare bedroom a few feet away. The walls are lined with photos of the couple, who have no children, globe-trotting in Africa, Asia and South America.

For a late breakfast, Hari drenches hemp seeds, chia seeds and buckwheat with cashew milk and tops it all with organic berries. She made the cashew milk herself, soaking the nuts overnight before blending them with water into a liquid. Soon she’s unloading a box of home-delivered organic vegetables that includes bok choy, carrots, mangoes, oranges, kale and other mixed greens. She shows off a clamshell box of dried kale dusted with savory seasonings. She shuns beef.

Dr. Oz

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?”

Puppet Beaver

She goes on to say that the offending compound, azodicarbonamide, is banned in some countries including Singapore, where those caught using it face fines and jail time. “Yes, this is a very hazardous substance that is linked to lung issues in workers who are exposed to it.”

In another video that could be mistaken for a Saturday Night Live spoof, Hari pets and praises a puppet beaver for helping the environment. “But they also flavor a ton of foods at the grocery store,” she says. ‘Yes, you do, with your little -- butt hole. Don’t you little beaver? Your butt hole.’’

Hari is referring to castoreum, which is harvested from a sac located near the beaver’s anus and labeled in the U.S. as a natural flavoring.

Steven Novella, the Yale researcher quoted in the radio interview, says Hari distorts the facts. Take the chemical azodicarbonamide, used to bleach and fluff some of Subway’s bread and create air bubbles that make yoga mats pliable and foamy. The research she cites focuses on the gas form of the chemical and workers who breathe it, not food. Novella says Subway uses too little of the ingredient to be dangerous.

Fish Bladders

David Gorski, a surgical oncologist and managing editor of the website Science-Based Medicine, criticized Hari’s warning about what she deemed the “sneaky” use of dried fish bladders, called isinglass, to clarify beer. Gorski notes that brewers have used the ingredient to sop up yeast and other solid particles since the 19th century. What’s more, critics say, the ingredient, widely considered natural, is made from swim bladders that fill with air not waste.

Gorski and Schwarcz take issue with Hari’s comment on ABC News that people probably shouldn’t eat anything they can’t pronounce.

“In other words, if the source is too yucky to the Food Babe, it must be unhealthy,” Gorski wrote in a blog post. “Yes, her ‘reasoning,’ such as it is, is just that vacuous.”

Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that while Hari sometimes “hyperventilates” about small risks in food, she is helpful on balance.

‘Populist Voice’

“Going after food dyes is worth doing and she brings a populist voice to the table,” he said. Internet-savvy food activists “do nudge companies to change their practices, often for the better.”

Hari’s transformation from consultant to Food Babe happened so fast, she’s still coming to terms with it. When asked if she’s using her looks to get attention, she expressed surprise and said that isn’t her intent. Her husband came up with Food Babe, yelling the name from another room when she was brainstorming. He thought her original idea -- eathealthyliveforever.com -- was forgettable.

In school, Hari said, she felt awkward and was more comfortable in jeans than dresses. She once turned down an invitation to compete in a beauty pageant.

Debate Team

“This whole embracing being a woman or wearing a bikini or form-fitting clothing is a new thing for me,” Hari said. “It was in my late 20s that I felt like a beautiful woman.”

Hari traded in a stint as a cheerleader for a spot on the high-school debate team. Vani means “voice” in Hindi. She was nationally ranked when the University of Georgia recruited her in the late 1990s. The job prospects worried her, however.

Her father, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, talked her into transferring there to pursue a computer science degree. Hari went to work for Accenture in 2002, kicking off a string of consulting jobs that took her to Wachovia, Bank of America and Ally Financial, in the aftermath of the U.S. home mortgage collapse.

At Accenture, Hari toiled long hours on tedious deadline projects. Fast food, especially Chick-fil-A, was a dietary staple. A steady stream of candy made the late nights more tolerable. Food was catered in. Doughnuts were ubiquitous.

“I gained over 30 pounds,” Hari said.

Stabbing Pain

She was also taking at least half a dozen prescriptions to control everything from eczema to allergies. In late 2002, at age 23, Hari was rushed into surgery with appendicitis after a stabbing pain in her side. She decided her diet was to blame.

“It started this whole new lifestyle that I would pay attention to what I ate,” she said. “I became very investigative about my food. I wanted to know why food processors were using these chemicals.”

Hari’s weight declined, her eczema cleared up and she phased out her prescriptions. Friends and family noticed. They wanted to know how and she was happy to preach. Friends suggested she blog. Her first post included a recipe for salmon with red cabbage, tips on how to travel more healthfully and a video her husband shot of Hari’s favorite elliptical workout. She remained anonymous in those early days, using cartoon characters of attractive women doing various activities and signing her blog posts “Food Babe.”

Processed Food

The blog became a catalog of Hari’s obsession with the chemicals in processed food and recipes to combat them. The hobby evolved into a series of high-velocity posts -- studded with words like “tricked,” “hiding,” and “duped” -- detailing what Hari calls “investigations” into what Americans eat. She’s even gone after American staples like pizza, chewing gum and supermarket birthday cakes. Nothing is sacred. Friends loved it. Then strangers signed on, too.

“There’s somebody else reading the blog,” she recalled thinking. “This is amazing.” She was hooked.

Hari’s campaign has taken her to the headquarters of Chick-fil-A in Atlanta to confront executives. She visited Mississippi to investigate why it’s the most obese state in the union. (She was handed a bag of Cheetos when she checked into her hotel.) Hari’s quest found her at the back kitchen door of a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. store convincing employees to reveal ingredients the chain had refused to disclose.

During a hike up Peru’s 8,000-foot Machu Picchu in December 2012, Hari decided to leave her lucrative consulting work to focus full-time on her activism. Her husband, a former computer programmer who helped build his wife’s website, now works full-time on the business, as well.

Growing Audience

FoodBabe.com attracts between 2.5 million and 4 million unique visitors a month, according to Hari. Comscore estimates Hari’s July web and mobile audience at 795,000 unique visitors in July. That compares to almost 14 million visits for Starbucks’ multiple web sites and mobile apps. Discrepancies aside -- due to imperfect and complex measurement systems -- Comscore’s data shows Hari’s monthly audience, dominated by women, has quadrupled in the past year with peaks and valleys along the way. It hit a peak in February and March, when she targeted Subway. New investigations predictably spike traffic.

The investigations drive readers to Hari’s Monthly Eating Guide, which she says is her primary source of revenue. For $17.99 a month, customers can download a full-color Food Babe Starter guide that teaches them about “organic living from the inside out.” The 38-page booklet lists “9 nasty ingredients to avoid,” tips on avoiding genetically modified organisms and advice on navigating restaurants.

Juicing Cleanse

Subscribers get monthly installments with recipes, shopping lists and such bonuses as a Juicing Cleanse Guide. Hari sells advertising for various organic and natural products she uses, though may phase those out. She declined to disclose annual revenue or other figures.

So far, the food industry has treated Hari more like an annoyance than a threat. While Kraft Macaroni & Cheese lost market share to natural brands like Annie’s, now being bought by General Mills Inc., after Hari’s criticism, her campaigns haven’t meaningfully depressed sales or ravaged stock prices.

“Most of these changes were a little more cosmetic than really deep down changes in the organization, at least from a profitability perspective,” said Ali Dibadj, a New York-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Some targets have started a dialog with Hari. Chick-fil-A paid Hari as a consultant -- before she quit her job -- so she could help them determine priorities for removing ingredients she had railed against. Kraft invited her in for a meeting with spokesmen on the day she delivered the petition about food dye.

Pumpkin Lattes

Starbucks, however, is keeping its distance. The coffee chain invited her to Seattle in March, after she’d taken the company to task for using high-fructose corn syrup in frappuccinos and azodicarbonamide in pastries. By May, the coffee chain had rescinded the offer, saying the visit and even an extended phone call with executives wouldn’t be productive. A couple of months later, Hari posted an item about Starbucks’ use of caramel color in its pumpkin lattes.

Starbucks said that while the optional caramel sauce for its Frappuccino drinks does contain high fructose corn syrup, the company has now eliminated pastries with azodicarbonamide. The company said it was working to get rid of caramel coloring prior to Hari’s questions.

For Hari, the victories represent a consumer awakening and a methodical progression toward transparency. Viewed over time, Hari is advancing a conversation that is prompting food companies to create new product lines, shift marketing away from old ones and treat consumers differently.

Easy Out

Rick Berman, whose Center for Consumer Freedom has long countered activists’ claims on the behalf of food companies, says the industry is taking the easy way out by quickly making concessions instead of “setting the record straight.”

“There is a certain dynamic when companies concede to even some of these lunatic fringe groups, or in this case a person,” Berman said. “They become known as an organization that with a little bit of pushing will flip, and it just invites more of the same.”

Either way, it adds up to a growing risk for food companies, Dibadj said. Power is shifting from Madison Avenue ad executives to Web-enabled shoppers, he said.

“The consumer views anything that comes from a big branded food company as less credible,” Dibadj said. “The Internet brings transparency. There is no longer a monopoly of information.”

Profit Peril

Companies have spent years cutting costs by replacing natural ingredients with artificial ones, while overselling the message that the products still taste great and are good for you, Dibadj said. Now that consumers are calling them on it, a reversal to natural ingredients is sure to hurt profit.

Hari is just getting started. She has signed with a production company to create her own TV show and she’ll publish a book called “The Food Babe Way” in February detailing her journey and philosophy. Maintaining a business means the investigations have to keep coming. Inevitably, they will also have to get bolder. That means the retorts are sure to get louder and more hostile, too.

“If I read everything on the Net,” she said. “I would go insane.”

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