The Chemophobic Food Babe

I interact with many people on a daily basis who I believe have an irrational fear of chemicals. Not a specific chemical, but chemicals in general. As a chemist, I find this utterly ridiculous. 

The origins of this chemophobia (an aversion to or prejudice against chemicals or chemistry) may lie in the past use of chemical weapons and industrial disasters, but it has since moved into the realm of fantasy, where specific chemicals are given unfavourable properties they don’t have. Fanning the flames of this irrational fear is a torrent of self-proclaimed experts, who reinforce and amplify these irrational fears for their own ends. People who perpetuate the idea that every scientist, corporation, and government has nothing better to do with their time than purposely expose the general public to dangerous chemicals. One of the generals on the front line in this war against chemistry is the American blogger and activist Vani Deva Hari, better known as The Food Babe. 

Vani-Hari-640x400

Vani Deva Hari

To her hundreds of thousands of fans, The Food Babe is the warrior of the average consumer, brazenly taking on the Goliath that is the American food industry, in the name of healthier eating. She started her blog back in 2011 after being hospitalised with an appendicitis she believes was caused by her poor ‘typical American’ diet. While she was stuck in a hospital bed, The ‘overweight and unhealthy’ Food Babe (her words, not mine) decided to make some drastic changes to her life, starting with her diet. She began researching food ingredients, which – among other things – led her to be critical of ingredients in processed food and certain manufacturing methods. Eventually she created FoodBabe.com to not only voice her concerns, but also to share her healthy lifestyle with her friends and family. Little did she know just how popular her website would become and how it would turn her into the champion of the people she is today. 

Time Magazine even named The Food Babe as one the most influential people on the Internet. It is now quite common for her to appear on American television, where she is often presented as a food expert, despite – by her own admission – not holding a nutrition or science degree. 

Perhaps what The Food Babe is best known for is her series of successful campaigns against large food corporations, getting them to remove certain chemical ingredients from their food. Her website contains a long list of these victories, and admittedly, The Food Babe and her supporters (dubbed the ‘Food Babe Army’) have achieved a lot in an impressively short amount of time. These achievements include: Subway removing the compound azodicarbonamide from their bread; Kraft removing yellow dyes from their Mac and Cheese; and Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors publishing their beer ingredients. 

As I said, The Food Babe gives the impression that she is standing up for the average person on the street, but in reality she is nothing more than fear monger. She makes a comfortable living for herself by researching the industrial uses of ingredients used in food manufacturing and citing those as grounds for the ingredients to be banned. She never goes into detail about why these chemicals should be banned in food and sometimes – rather embarrassingly – points the finger at the wrong chemical.  

 


Azodicarbonamide in Subway Sandwiches 

Azodicarbonamide is used in North America as a flour bleaching agent and a dough conditioner, but has another use in plastic manufacturing as a blowing agent – a substance which is capable of producing a cellular structure via a foaming process. The compound decomposes when heated up, forming ammonia, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and carbon monoxide. When used in plastic manufacturing, these gasses are trapped in the polymer, resulting in foamed plastics (used to make, for example, yoga mats). The Food Babe struck gold when she discovered this, because by linking the two together, it fed into some people’s beliefs that food served in restaurants like Subway is fake, synthetic and plastic. 

She then began her campaign, armed with her trusty yoga mat and the inability to pronounce azodicarbonamide, which supports one of her popular sayings: ‘If a third grader can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.’ Looking past the fact that you shouldn’t be getting nutrition advice from someone under 10 years old, azodicarbonamide is very easy to pronounce, because it’s an IUPAC name (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry). This is a standard method of naming organic compounds, meaning that any chemist worth their salt should be able to draw the compound, as well as pronounce its name. 

Vani hari subway

Vani Hari outside Subway with her yoga mat

As part of her campaign, The Food Babe uploaded a video to YouTube named: ‘Are You Eating This Ingredient Banned All Over the World?’. In this video she basically says, you wouldn’t eat your yoga mat, so why eat Subway sandwiches? The video begins with The Food Babe performing yoga on her mat and saying hello to the camera, before biting a chunk out of the mat and telling the viewer to ‘wake up’ to what’s in their food. We are then treated to a family sat at a dinner table chowing down on their yoga mats to really hammer home the point The Food Babe is trying to make. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending the use of this chemical in food manufacturing, but I don’t think it’s something you should waste your time worrying about. Again, it’s the dose that makes the poison. I believe The Food Babe knows this too, since she talks in the video about the compound being linked to lung issues in workers exposed to large amounts of the raw material, not that the amounts in sandwiches is linked to cancer. What she fails to mention is that the World Health Organisation (where she got her information from) says that azodicarbonamide is only potentially dangerous when inhaled, that it’s not allowed in food over 45 parts per million, and that it breaks down during bread manufacture to form biurea, semicarbazide and ethyl carbamate. In other words she got people wound up and worried about nothing! 

Accompanying Blog Post

The Chemophobic Food Babe

One thing I love about having a relatively large subscriber base is that I don’t have to go out of my way to find pseudoscience proponents to shoot down with cold hard logic and indisputable facts. I am constantly sent emails from people telling me about the latest quack online selling a holistic cancer cure, or the latest conspiracy based on Flight MH17, the […]

Unfortunately, Subway bowed to her demands when her petition to ban azodicarbonamide gained over 250,000 signatures. By doing this, Subway sent the message that there was something wrong with this chemical and that it posed a real danger, giving The Food Babe credibility at the same time.


Airplane De-icing Liquid in Beer

I thought it couldn’t get worse, but whilst browsing the Internet one night, I found another one of The Food Babe’s videos, in which she asks large breweries to publish the ingredients used in the production of their beers. 

She starts by telling us that her husband is a fan of beer and that there is a ‘long list of ingredients allowed in beer’ – giving the impression that there is something nefarious afoot. She then begins to list some of these ingredients, as the names of more scroll behind her. Sticking with her clichéd Food Babe formula, she again links a chemical used in food manufacture to another use. This time, she doesn’t even bother to tell us the name of the chemical, but simply says that beer can contain ‘ingredients found in airplane de-icing liquids’.

Naturally, I wanted to find out which chemical she was referring to, so began to search her website but was unable to find this information. I did, however, find a picture showing us which beers contained which ‘evil’ ingredients. Which begs the question, how exactly does she know this if the breweries don’t make their ingredients public?

I also searched through videos on YouTube and discovered one where she actually names the compound in question. The video in was an interview of The Food Babe by radio show host and owner of the website Info Wars, Alex Jones.

For those of you who have never heard of Alex Jones, think yourself lucky. Alex is an American right-wing conspiracy theorist who turns the tin foil hat up to 11. Alex believes that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings – where 20 children aged between six and seven years old were shot – was staged. He also believes that the US government was involved with the Oklahoma City bombings, the September 11 attacks, and that they faked the Moon landings. Perhaps my favourite conspiracy I’ve heard from Alex was that dishwashers are somehow spying on their owners. 

Alex Jones

Alex Jones

The video is 20 minutes long and is cringeworthy throughout. Alex constantly talks about shadow governments and sinister plots as The Food Babe smiles and nods politely. 

Perhaps one of the most (unintentionally) funny and ironic parts of the video is where we cut to Alex awkwardly pipetting his own-brand colloidal silver into a water bottle, before guzzling it down. As he does this, The Food Babe, who famously said, ‘There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever’, lists chemicals used in food manufacturing which she believes cause harm. The Food Babe then finally names the compound used in aeroplane de-icers as propylene glycol – a viscous and colourless liquid that is, indeed, used in some types of antifreeze. What The Food Babe fails to mention is that propylene glycol has a very low toxicity, and would require extremely large doses over a relatively short period of time for there to be any danger. Even long-term oral toxicity studies performed on rats fed with as much as 5% propylene glycol showed no apparent ill effects.

But do you want to know the kicker? The fact that exposes The Food Babe as the uninformed and uneducated fear-pusher that she is? She might not be talking about propylene glycol in the first place. It’s highly likely that she got propylene glycol confused with propylene glycol alginate, which is used in beer to stabilise foam. Although these molecules sound similar, they are in fact vastly different – one is a small diol (a chemical compound containing two hydroxyl groups) and the other is a huge polysaccharide which has been esterified with propylene glycol. Put simply, The Food Babe got people worked up about the wrong chemical and not one of her hundreds of fans, or anyone who promoted her campaign, bothered to check.

Accompanying Blog Post

The Intentionally Misleading Food Babe

Edited by Peter I have previously written about the Food Babe and her obsession with demanding that certain chemicals must not be used in the manufacture of food simply because they have alternative industrial uses. I gave an example of how in 2013, she led a campaign to ban the use of azodicarbonamide in the production of Subway sandwiches because it also happens to be used in manufacture of certain plastics. By linking the two together, […]


The Blog the Food Babe Desperately Tried to Hide

Whilst researching her de-icer claims, I stumbled upon the motherload. I found something The Food Babe has desperately tried to hide from her audience because it shows them, no matter their level of scientific understanding, that she doesn’t have a clue.

Back in 2011, The Food Babe published a blog post which she has since deleted called ‘Food Babe Travel Essentials – No Reason to Panic on the Plane!’ But, as we all know, nothing is ever truly deleted from the internet. The post is by far one of her strangest, but it is also incredibly revealing, because for the first time we are seeing her true level of knowledge, paranoia, and lack of common sense. She wrote this post in a vacuum, isolated from the internet and those who could correct her. You see, she wrote this post as she was flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo, presumably without an Internet connection for fact checking any of the claims she was making. And boy oh boy does it make for an interesting read.

“The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes [sic] gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.” – The Food Babe

After reading this, I‘m not sure where The Food Babe would like the air in the cabin to come from, if not outside. It’s a bit of a straw man, but is she really thinking that aeroplanes should carry their own oxygen source? You’re also not breathing in anything the airplane gives off, but it’s true that the primary air supply in nearly all modern commercial aircrafts originates in their engines. Inside, the air is compressed before being used for combustion, to power the aircraft forwards. Some of this compressed air is rerouted before it can be used in combustion, to provide breathable air for the passengers. This air is first cooled by heat exchangers and air conditioners, before being passed through HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. The filters can be up to 99.999% efficient at removing all known viruses and bacteria. This air is then mixed with recirculated air, making it easier to regulate the temperature and help maintain humidity. This air, just like air at sea level, is not pure oxygen, as The Food Babe seems to imply. As all good chemists know, this is a good thing because in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, things burn really quickly.

The Earth’s atmosphere is composed of approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon, 0.03% carbon dioxide and trace amounts of other gases. Disregarding The Food Babe’s obvious lack of basic scientific knowledge, how does she expect airlines to filter out oxygen? And how would this be cheaper? Surely it would cost more to filter out the oxygen from the air they’re pumping in, rather then just say… pumping it in. As for the claim that nitrogen may affect the time and dosages of medications etc., I’m sure she pulled this out of her arse. Unless she’s talking about hypoxia , in which case, feeling bloated will be the least of your concerns. Fear not, however, as The Food Babe has advice on how to get more oxygen:

“Choose a seat as close to the front as possible. Pilots control the amount of airflow and it is always better in their cabin.” – The Food Babe

Accompanying Blog Post

The Food Babe Has Her Head in the Clouds

Edited by Peter I was going to leave the blogger and food activist Vani Deva Hari AKA the Food Babe alone for a while. This is because recently I have published quite a lot of things about her and felt that I might be giving off the impression that I am a bit of a […]

Even to the average person, The Food Babe has exposed herself here to be unknowledgeable about basic scientific facts, as well as lacking common sense. And since she’s so wrong about the aviation industry and the composition of the atmosphere, then you might think she’s probably wrong about the following advice, from the same blog post:

‘Bring your own food. Airport and airplane food is overly processed and contains more GMO, pesticides, MSG, and chemicals than can make your head spin!’ – The Food Babe

 


“Dangerous Food Dyes in Our Mac & Cheese”

In 2013, The Food Babe started a petition to stop Kraft using the synthetic food dyes Tartrazine (FD&C Yellow 5) and Sunset Yellow FCF (FD&C Yellow 6) in their Mac & Cheese. It gathered 365,806 signatures, which forced Kraft’s hand to not only remove the artificial dyes from their mac & cheese, but also to remove all synthetic dyes from their entire product line. It was another victory for The Food Babe, but was it a victory for the American consumer?

The Food Babe lives up to her name as the Queen of Chemophobia when she says that the yellow dyes must be avoided because they’re ‘made in a lab from chemicals derived from petroleum’. It’s true that these two chemicals are made in reaction vessels rather than having natural sources, but this has no bearing on their toxicity. Similarly, the ancestry of a compound has no effect on its toxicity. Tartrazine no more remembers its petroleum origins than the painkiller paracetamol.

I was curious to know which specific petroleum-derived compound The Food Babe was referring to, as she never mentions it by name. I decided to identify this mystery compound for myself. Since I’m a bit of a whizz at retrosynethic analysis, I looked at the two dyes and saw that both were probably made using 4-diazobenzenesulfonic acid. This compound can be made from sulfanilic acid, which is produced by the sulfonation of aniline. Aniline is made industrially from the nitration and then hydrogenation of benzene, which is one of the elementary petrochemicals. The only problem is that benzene is one of the core building blocks of organic chemistry used in the manufacture of so many compounds, like paracetamol, that it’s hard to know where to start.

The Food Babe goes on to say that yellow number 5 and yellow number 6 are known carcinogens which is simply not true. What makes this claim particularly hilarious is that it’s contradicted on The Food Babe’s own website! Instead of saying that these dyes are known carcinogens, it says that they ‘can be contaminated with known carcinogens’.

She also states with some confidence that these compounds have been known to increase hyperactivity in children. She references the Centre for Science in the Public Interest blog post, which, in turn, referenced the paper ‘Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial’. There are many problems with this study, the first being that because they used a mixture of artificial food colourings and sodium benzoate, you can’t say which one is responsible for the negative effects apparently observed. As well as this, artificial food colourings are vastly different from each other and, therefore, will have different toxicity, metabolisms, and effects on people. Painting all artificial food dyes with the same brush shows a deep ignorance of chemistry. The paper was also bashed by the European Food Safety Authority who used it to evaluate people’s acceptable daily intake (ADI) of artificial colours:

“In the context of the overall weight of evidence and in view of the considerable uncertainties, such as the lack of consistency and relative weakness of the effect and the absence of information on the clinical significance of the behavioural changes observed, the panel concludes that the findings of the study cannot be used as a basis for altering the ADI of the respective food colours or sodium benzoate” –European Food Safety Authority

Finally, The Food Babe tells her loyal following that the dyes are banned in countries like Norway and Austria, but so what! Kinder Surprise eggs are banned in America. A different version of Marmite is sold to Canadians because the UK version contains ingredients not approved in Canada. How many countries can you list where alcohol is banned?

Accompanying Blog Post

Colour to Dye For

Edited by Peter There are many people I interact with on a daily basis who I believe have an irrational fear of chemicals. Not a specific chemical, but chemicals in general which, as a chemist, I find utterly ridiculous. The origins of this chemophobia may lie in the past use of chemical weapons and industrial […]

The Food Babe was, however, correct about one thing. The dyes don’t change the nutritional value or the test of the food they are in. They’re just there for aesthetic reasons and can be replaced or not used at all. There are valid reasons for not wanting these dyes in your food. For example, a small percentage of the population are sensitive to them. Telling people they must be removed because they’re derived from petroleum, or may be contaminated with carcinogens, or because they cause hyperactivity in children and are banned in different countries, is not giving a valid reason. The Food Babe has, once again, made a storm in a teacup, fanning the flames of chemophobia, which is sadly becoming more fashionable these days.


Honourable mentions

The Food Babe, in all her wisdom has also covered MSG, Aspartame and Sucralose. I have handily covered these topics separately so you don’t have to suffer too much of The Food Babe’s bulls*t all at once.

Accompanying Blog Post

Some People Just Don’t Get the MSG

If I were to ask you how many basic tastes there are, I would guess the vast majority of you would answer four. Bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and sweetness. And you would be wrong, as there is a fifth taste called umami. The name umami derives from the Japanese word for “delicious” and, despite us all tasting it daily, was not discovered until 1908. The man credited with […]

Will Aspartame Kill You?

Edited by Peter One of the best things about being a Z-list internet skeptic is that I no longer have to go out of my way to find crazy conspiracy theories to debunk or quacks to knock down a peg. These days, I am inundated with messages from people who do all the hard work for me. Without their help I would never have discovered the Food […]

Is Sucralose Dangerous?

Edited by Peter Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that goes by many brand names, but the one most will be familiar with is Splenda. The sweetener is synthesised by the selective protection, chlorination, and then deportation of table sugar, resulting in a compound which is approximately 650 times sweeter. It is found in many lower-calorie foods including chewing gum, cereals, and diet pop, and is considered to […]


 

What this all boils down to is fear. The Food Babe is relying on her audience not taking the time to find out which chemical she is referring to and naturally assuming that it’s going to be quite toxic. I can completely understand wanting to know what’s in your food, but saying that products may contain de-icing liquids, is just intentionally misleading. In reality, this isn’t a million miles away from telling people not to eat fries from McDonalds, because they also contain a de-icer: sodium chloride AKA table salt.

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