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Science Babe

Science Babe takes on Food Babe – and creates an internet frenzy

Earlier this month, you probably would’t have heard of Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe. But after posting a Gawker article attacking blogger darling Vani Hari titled “The ‘Food Babe’ Blogger Is Full of Shit,” the Internet went into a frenzy; thus far, the post has gotten more than 4.6 million reads. Within hours of going live, her website had been crippled by the massive influx of traffic. By the next day, the death threats from started rolling in from Food Babe’s devotees.

Here goes her article:

Vani Hari, AKA the Food Babe, has amassed a loyal following in her Food Babe Army. The recent subject of profiles and interviews in the New York Times, the New York Post and New York Magazine, Hari implores her soldiers to petition food companies to change their formulas. She’s also written a bestselling book telling you that you can change your life in 21 days by “breaking free of the hidden toxins in your life.” She and her army are out to change the world.

She’s also utterly full of shit.

I am an analytical chemist with a background in forensics and toxicology. Before working full-time as a science writer and public speaker, I worked as a chemistry professor, a toxicology chemist, and in research analyzing pesticides for safety. I now run my own blog, Science Babe, dedicated to debunking pseudoscience that tends to proliferate in the blogosphere. Reading Hari’s site, it’s rare to come across a single scientific fact. Between her egregious abuse of the word “toxin” anytime there’s a chemical she can’t pronounce and asserting that everyone who disagrees with her is a paid shill, it’s hard to pinpoint her biggest sin.

Hari’s superhero origin story is that she came down with appendicitis and didn’t accept the explanation that appendicitis just happens sometimes. So she quit her job as a consultant, attended Google University and transformed herself into an uncredentialed expert in everything she admittedly can’t pronounce. Slap the catchy moniker “Food Babe” on top, throw in a couple of trend stories and some appearances on the Dr. Oz show, and we have the new organic media darling.

But reader beware. Here are some reasons why she’s the worst assault on science on the internet.

Natural, Organic, GMO-Free Fear

Hari’s campaign last year against the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte drove me to launch my site (don’t fuck with a Bostonian’s Pumpkin-Spice Anything). She alleged that the PSL has a “toxic” dose of sugar and two (TWO!!) doses of caramel color level IV in carcinogen class 2b.

The word “toxic” has a meaning, and that is “having the effect of a poison.” Anything can be poisonous depending on the dose. Enough water can even be poisonous in the right quantity (and can cause a condition called hyponatremia).

But then, the Food Babe has gone on record to say, ” There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.” I wonder if anybody’s warned her about good old dihydrogen monoxide?

(AKA water.)

It’s a goddamn stretch to say that sugar has deleterious effects, other than making your Lululemons stretch a little farther if you don’t “namaste” your cheeks off. However, I implore you to look at the Safety Data Sheet for sugar. The average adult would need to ingest about fifty PSLs in one sitting to get a lethal dose of sugar. By that point, you would already have hyponatremia from an overdose of water in the lattes.

And almost enough caffeine for me.

And what about that “carcinogenic” caramel color? Well, it turns out that it’s not the only thing in your PSL that’s in carcinogen class 2b.

There’s also coffee.

Coffee is class 2b because of the acrylamide accumulated during the roasting process. Coffee, before Starbucks turns it into a milkshake, is pretty healthy for you. Class 2b means that all possible carcinogenic effects haven’t been ruled out (because we haven’t tested drinking it while tightrope walking across the Grand Canyon and simultaneously attempting to eat fire… yet), but that it hasn’t been shown to cause a single case of cancer.

This is a blatant attempt at getting you to look to her for answers by making you unnecessarily afraid. The goal of Hari’s campaign was to… well, we’re still not sure. Remove the caramel color? Smear Starbucks? After that campaign failed, she launched a failed attempt to get them to use only organic milk, which would have made their lattes far more expensive and no healthier.

Hari uses this tricky technique again and again. If I told you that a chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed?

What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?

This is Hari’s business. She takes innocuous ingredients and makes you afraid of them by pulling them out of context (Michelle Francl, in a review of Hari’s book for Slate, expertly demonstrates the shallowness of this gimmick). This is how Hari demonized the harmless yet hard-to-pronounce azodicarbonamide, or as she deemed it, the “yoga mat chemical,” which is yes, found in yoga mats and also in bread, specifically Subway sandwich bread, a discovery Hari bombastically trumpeted on her website. However, as the science-minded among us understand, a substance can be used for more than one thing perfectly safely, and it doesn’t mean that your bread is made of a yoga mat if it happens to contain azodicarbonamide, which is FDA-approved as a dough-softening agent. It simply means your bread is composed of chemicals, much like everything else you eat.

Hari’s rule? “If a third grader can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.”

My rule? Don’t base your diet on the pronunciation skills of an eight-year-old…. [do read on, for rational, science-loving people Science Babe is a tonic! Ed]

Gawker.com: Read the full article

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