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Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe): The Jenny McCarthy of food

NOTE ADDENDUM – Ed.

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a beer snob. I make no bones about it, I like my beer, but I also like it to be good beer, and, let’s face it, beer brewed by large industrial breweries seldom fits the bill. To me, most of the beer out being sold in the U.S., particularly beer made by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors can easily be likened to cold piss from horses with kidney disease (you need protein to get beer foam, you know), only without the taste. I have to be mighty desperate and thirsty before I will partake of such swill. I will admit that there is one exception, namely Blue Moon, which is manufactured by a division of MillerCoors, but that’s the only exception I can think of. Ever since I discovered Bell’s Oberon, a nice local (well, statewide, anyway) wheat ale, I can do without Blue Moon. Sadly, Oberon is only brewed during the spring and summer months; so when I want a similar bit of brew during the winter months sometimes I’m tempted by Blue Moon. Otherwise, I’m generally happy with one of the many craft and microbrews made by local brewers such as Short’s Brewing Company (whose brewpub I had the pleasure of visiting about a month ago) and Bells Brewery.

Despite my general hostility to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors products as examples of everything that is wrong with American beer, I have to say that I almost feel sorry for the people running those corporations right now. Unfortunately, they’ve fallen victim to the latest quack making a name for herself on the Internet by peddling pseudoscience. As is my wont, I’ll go into my usual excruciating detail shortly. But first, to whom am I referring?

FBhari

Enter the font of misinformation that is The Food Babe

Like Mark Crislip, who recently wrote about her about her mind-numbingly stupid antivaccine post, until recently I had no idea who she was, but unfortunately, I do now. She’s photogenic and also has a talent and penchant for making her utter ignorance of chemistry and science work for her as a powerful P.R. tool that has catapulted her from an obscure food blogger to a guest on television shows such as The Doctors and that repository of all medical crankery and quackery, The Dr. Oz Show, where The Great and Powerful Oz himself praised her activities as part of the “Oz effect.” Her name is Vani Hari, but she is much better known by her blog name, The Food Babe. She’s been featured on this blog before, not surprisingly, both by Mark Crislip and Steve Novella, who dismantled her claims that microwaving food somehow destroys its nutritional value and renders it full of “toxins” and her attack on Subway for using azodicarbonamide, which she dubbed the “yoga mat chemical.”

Unfortunately, in that latter case, when faced with a young, telegenic, clever but scientifically ignorant blogger who used her popular website and blog to gather a bunch of signatures rooted in the same ignorance she promotes, Subway caved, even though there is no good evidence that azodicarbonamide is harmful and lots of good evidence that it’s useful as a maturing agent. Basically, when it’s added to flour, it makes bread dough rise better. It also improves the handling properties of dough, making it drier, more cohesive and more pliable, allowing it to hold together better during kneading. No wonder uber-quack Mike Adams is so impressed with her. The two are kindred spirits, given how Mike Adams has been doing, in essence, the same sort of thing with a mass spectrometer, using it to measure heavy metals in various foods and supplements as fodder for fear mongering campaigns to demonize the food industry, not to mention to undercut competitors in the supplement business.

Last week, The Food Babe turned her ever-scientifically-ignorant sights on one of my favorite beverages of all, beer. As befits her growing skill at using PR combined with rants against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and scary sounding chemicals (i.e., all of them), she targeted large breweries like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, charging that they had all sorts of nefariously toxic “chemicals” and GMO-derived products in their beers and challenging them to publish their complete ingredient list. As typically happens when The Food Babe takes aim at a corporation, these beer behemoths hemmed and hawed for a couple of days as they figured out a response—and that response was, ultimately, to cave just like Subway:

Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, two of the world’s biggest beer makers, are posting online what’s inside bottles of Budweiser and Miller Lite after pressure from a food blogger.

The two companies on Thursday posted the ingredients of some of their most popular brands, and promised to be more transparent in the future. The announcements come a day after blogger Vani Hari posted a petition on FoodBabe.com to get major brewers to list what’s in their beverages.

Anheuser-Busch posted the ingredients for its two top-selling brands on its website, tapintoyourbeer.com. It lists the same ingredients for Budweiser and Bud Light: Water, barley malt, rice, yeast and hops. The company, which also makes Beck’s, Busch and Michelob beers, said it will list the ingredients for all of its other brands online “in the coming days.” It’s the first time Anheuser-Busch has detailed the ingredients of its beers.

Here’s the problem. All you have to do to see that this won’t satisfy Hari is to go back to her original charges and petitions. Of course the main ingredients of beer are water, barley malt, rice, yeast, and hops! That’s how beer is made. The original petition paints the issue as a comparison of Coca Cola and Windex having to reveal their ingredients but beer not having to do so. Then there’s a video featuring Hari starting out gushing about how her husband “loves beer” and that’s why she wanted so badly to find out what’s “really” in beer. There’s then a list that scrolls down the screen to her right of—you guessed it!—a whole lot of chemicals with scary-sounding names plus—of course!—the dreaded GMOs:

I was tempted to leave the deconstruction of Hari’s claims to the reader as an exercise, to see how much you grok science-based medicine, but then this would turn into the all-time shortest Gorski post in the history of SBM, and we can’t have that, now, can we?

Scary chemical names and origins as a propaganda weapon

I must confess. I didn’t know that there was caffeine in beer until I perused the list that flew by in Hari’s video above. It seems rather counterproductive. On the other hand, I do like the occasional Irish coffee, which also combines alcohol and caffeine. Never mind. In any case, her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. However, if you have any background in chemistry, much of what Hani is doing is almost painfully transparent, a veritable insult to one’s intelligence and training. Here are some examples.

Particularly hilarious are some of the “evil” chemicals listed, which include

  • Calcium phosphate, dibasic
  • Calcium phosphate, monobasic
  • Calcium phosphate, tribasic

What’s the difference between these three forms of calcium phosphate? I know the answer because my undergraduate degree is in chemistry. To make it very simple, these are all different forms of calcium phosphate that differ in the ratio of calcium ion to phosphate ion that depends upon the charge on the phosphate ion. Calcium ion holds a +2 charge, and the ratio of calcium to phosphate in the salt must be neutral. That’s it. Monobasic calcium phosphate contains a one-to-two ratio of calcium to phosphate, because the phosphate in this form holds a -1 charge. It’s acidic; so when it reacts with alkali it produces carbon dioxide and a salt, which is why it is often used as a leavening agent to make baked goods rise. Dibasic calcium phosphate has a one-to-one ratio of calcium to phosphate, because the phosphate in it has a -2 charge, having lost one hydrogen ion. It’s sometimes used as a dietary supplement and a tableting agent. It’s also more neutral, and a lot less soluble in water. Tribasic calcium phosphate has three calcium ions to two phosphate ions, because the phosphate ions have a -3 charge. Now here’s the thing. In aqueous solution, there is always going to be a mixture of these three forms, because at a pH of around 4 (the pH of most ales and lagers) different proportions of the phosphate ions will have differing numbers of hydrogen ions associated with them, from one to three. I could go into a lot more detail, and almost certainly chemists reading this might take issue with my simplification, but in reality what we’re talking about is a combination of calcium ion and phosphate ion in aqueous solution at a pH of around 4-4.5. Listing them as three different chemicals is deceptive. Sure, in solid (i.e., crystal) form they have different properties, this means little in dilute aqueous solution.

She pulls exactly the same deceptive trick with sodium phosphate, the three forms of which are basically sodium salts of phosphoric acid as formed at different pHs. At low pH, more of the phosphate will be monobasic; at high pH more will be tribasic. Again, it’s an equilibrium where the proportion of mono-, di-, and tri-basic forms of phosphate depends on the pH. In fact, that’s how you can make phosphate buffers of any pH you want: Vary the proportions of di- and monobasic forms of phosphate, like so. In chemistry, according to the Bronsted-Lowry acid-base theory, an acid is a proton donor and a base is a proton acceptor. Boiled down to a very simple explanation, that’s where the “basic” in mono-, di-, and tribasic comes from, the number of protons the phosphate group can accept.

In her petition, Hari complains:

When I called and emailed these companies, they gave me the runaround about their ingredients — providing basic information but not the full story.

Who can blame them? Surely MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch were aware of the deceptive “yoga mat chemical” gambit used by Hari to such effect earlier this year. I wouldn’t give Hari the time of day, either. Unfortunately, companies live and die by public perception. It’s far easier to give a blackmailer like Hari what she wants than to try to resist or to counter her propaganda by educating the public. And, make no mistake, blackmail is exactly what Vani Hari is about. (NOTE ADDED AFTER PUBLICATION: Forbes blogger Trevor Butterworth calls this sort of strategy “quackmail.” Damn. Another term, like “quackademic medicine,” that I wish I’d thought of. Meanwhile Jay Brooks calls it “yellow journalism,” which to me is being far to kind to the Food Babe, who has demonstrated her intolerance of dissent and outright intellectual dishonest time and time again. That’s why I think Tom Cizauskas is more accurate to refer to what the Food Babe does as “calumny.”)

Oh, no, there’s antifreeze in my beer! Or is there?

I’ve frequently deconstructed and, at times, mocked what I like to call the “toxins” gambit as applied to vaccines by antivaccinationists. Basically, the toxins gambit is a fallacious trope in which antivaccinationists list the scary sounding chemicals in vaccines and use that list to portray vaccines as full of “toxins.” Of course, they don’t take into account the simple fact that the dose makes the poison and these chemicals are present in vaccines in such a small quantity that they are not dangerous. Another tactic often used as part of the toxins gambit is to pick scary-sounding chemicals in vaccines that sound dangerous but aren’t, at least not in the concentrations in vaccines. A great example is formaldehyde. There are, indeed, trace amounts of formaldehyde in vaccines from the manufacturing process, in which formaldehyde is used to kill the viruses used and/or to denature the proteins from the viruses. However, formaldehyde is a normal product of metabolism, and the amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is minor compared to the amount in the body and the amount to which we’re exposed every day.

And that’s part of what you need to know before you read the Food Babe “expose” that started this whole thing. It’s nearly a year old and called “The Shocking Ingredients In Beer“. This rather lengthy article is a rather long example of just that, the toxins gambit. Her entire list consists of various ingredients with no context given other than the scariest—deceptively so—spin. No concentrations are provided, ignoring the principle of dose-response and the dose making the poison. She lists propylene glycol, of course, as being in “antifreeze.” Of course, propylene glycol is also in vaccines, and, ironically enough, it’s the carrier used in most e-cigarettes. In any case, as has been pointed out to me multiple times, propylene glycol is an ingredient that has been generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Indeed, here’s what the FDA website says about it:

Propylene glycol is metabolized by animals and can be used as a carbohydrate source. Propylene glycol can be ingested over long periods of time and in substantial quantities (up to 5 percent of the total food intake) without causing frank toxic effects. Propylene glycol monostearate is readily hydrolysed in vivo and the propylene glycol and fatty acid moieties enter their respective metabolic pathways. At lethal or near lethal doses (6 g per kg or more), however, it has been reported to cause kidney damage in several species and toe deformities in chicks. These doses contrast with the few mg per kg per day estimated in Section III of this report to be the human daily dietary intake of propylene glycol. The Select Committee has weighed the available information and concludes that: There is no evidence in the available information on propylene glycol and propylene glycol monostearate that demonstrates, or suggests reason to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in future.

The CDC has more information.

Because it falls under the category of GRAS, propylene glycol has been widely used as a moistening agent in cosmetics and for various purposes in food. None of this stops a staff writer over at that wretched hive of scum and quackery, NaturalNews.com, to crank up the fear mongering even more, complaining that it’s derived from petroleum and natural gas fossil fuels. I like to call this, for purposes of medical and food uses, the fallacy of origin. In other words, the claim is that, because a substance originated from a source that sounds toxic (or just plain disgusting), it must be bad for you.

And, if you listen to brewer Mitch Steele, it’s not even in beer! It’s used as a food-grade substance in external chilling systems, but he’s never heard of it being added to beer, concluding, “The only way propylene glycol could get into beer is by a leak in the cooling system,” and saying that when he worked at Anheuser-Busch they used to test the beers regularly to make sure they were glycol-free. Another brewer, Steve Parkes, points out that the main reason such substances are listed is because every production process aid has to be listed, regardless of whether it’s in the final product or not. Steele also points out that food dyes are not commonly used in beer.

Hari pulls the same gambit over isinglass (dried fish bladder), gelatin, and casein (milk protein). In particular, isinglass bothers her:

But, Guinness beer also contains isinglass, a gelatin-like substance produced from the swim bladder of a fish. This ingredient helps remove any “haziness,” solids, or yeast byproducts from the beer. Mmmmm… fish bladder sounds delicious, doesn’t? The sneaky thing this beer company does like many of the companies mentioned here today is create an illusion of using the best ingredients when in actuality what they tell you publicly on their websites is a complete farce.

The funny thing is, this is nothing new. Guinness has been using finings (substances to clear the beer) containing isinglass since the mid- to late 19th century and is generally considered natural. It’s used to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product, because as the isinglass passes through the beer it attracts particles from the fermented beer that create an unwanted haziness. It forms a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask, where it’s easily separated from the beer. Beer will clear on its own, but isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer. It’s also been noted that isinglass is rarely used today in the beer brewing process. In other words, isinglass is nothing more than a form of gelatin derived from fish swim bladders rather than from the bones and/or connective tissue of cattle and other domestic animals.

There is a question among some vegans whether mere contact of one’s food or beverage with animal matter and the possibility that trace amounts of animal matter might remain in it are enough to make such foods or beverages off-limits, but if that’s the case then vegans shouldn’t drink most beers, many of which use gelatin instead of isinglass as a clearing agent. There are also a huge number of foods in whose manufacture gelatins from various sources are used. What’s not so funny is that the emphasis on isinglass as having been derived from fish bladders is deceptive, given how few beers are manufactured using it. It’s there for no other purpose than to scream, “Oooh! Fish bladders are used to make beer! Yucky! We must stop this yuckiness!” Of course, isinglass resembles fish bladder about as much as gelatin resembles a cow, but that doesn’t stop our intrepid Food Babe for making in essence, an argument against yuckiness about isinglass and substances like castoreum, an exudate from the castor sacs of the North American Beaver that is used in some perfumes and as food additives, of which she asks, “Do you eat beaver butt?” In other words, if the source is yucky to the Food Babe, it must be unhealthy. Yes, her “reasoning,” such as it is, is just that vacuous.

Indeed, the Food Babe has postulated her very own rule:

When you look at the ingredients [in food], if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

As everyone’s favorite chemist Joe Schwarcz said, Hari should then stay as far away from cyanocobalamine as possible. Not only is it hard to pronounce but it has cyanide! Oh, wait. That’s vitamin B12. Josh Bloom helpfully provides a whole list of difficult-to-pronounce chemical names for some very common substances, some of which are necessary and quite healthy.

Oh, noes! GMOs!

Perhaps the most horrific thing of all about beer to the Food Babe is that MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch apparently use GMO-derived products to make their beer:

Most beers brewed commercially are made with more GMO corn than barley. Many of the companies I contacted dodged the GMO question – however Miller Coors had a very forthcoming and honest response. They stated “Corn syrup gives beer a milder and lighter-bodied flavor” and “Corn syrups may be derived from a mixture of corn (conventional and biotech.)”, admitting their use of GMOs.

And:

Dextrose and maltose can come from a variety of substances that are sweet, but likely are derived from GMO corn because it is super cheap for a company to use corn instead of fruit or other non-GMO sources. With cheap beer – you are not just getting a cheap buzz, you are getting the worst of the worst. Just like with cheap fast food – if you don’t invest in your beer – you will be drinking a lower quality product like Pabst Blue Ribbon that is made from GMO Corn and Corn Syrup.

Hey, Vani, don’t diss my PBR! I lived in Chicago, and that’s blasphemy! (Actually, PBR is one of the only beers manufactured by “big beer” that I can stomach, at least when it’s on tap, but it’s not one of my favorites.)

In any case, this is pure silliness, nothing more than tying GMO fear mongering to scary chemical name fear mongering. They’re too crappy tastes that test crappy together. I don’t feel the need to discuss the lack of validity of the anti-GMO nonsense that’s being peddled, other than to point out that the most “damning” studies presented by anti-GMO activists to convince people that GMOs are pure evil have been thoroughly discredited by multiple sources. In any case, it’s the naturalistic fallacy all over again. The basic fact is that the wheat, barley, and other grains used to make beer have been constantly genetically modified over many centuries through selective breeding, as has nearly every plant commonly farmed by humans for consumption. Ditto the very yeast used to ferment the grain products into beer. Indeed, there are many different strains of yeast maintained by many different laboratories, often with the help of scientists. Indeed, yeast are quite adept at swapping genes quite promiscuously; so in the wild yeast is constantly being “genetically engineered.”

In the end, Hari recommends German beers, because the Germans have stricter beer purity laws, organic beers (because, organic, of course), and craft beers and microbrews, because they use higher quality ingredients and are apparently less likely to contain GMOs. Ironically, this is good advice but not for the reason Hari thinks. It’s good advice because such beers tend to be much, much better than the mass-produced, tasteless brews concocted by massive companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors.

As for whether beer is healthy or not, that is an entirely different matter. There are many reasons to recommend not drinking a lot of beer. Beer is an alcoholic beverage, and too much alcohol contributes to a number of diseases, such as cirrhosis and various cancers. It also has a lot of calories, which can contribute to weight gain when consumed in excess—or even not in excess if the extra calories are enough to put one “over the top.” None of these reasons include any of the reasons Hari lists, such as use of GMO-derived grains and sugars and the various scary-sounding chemicals that are in beers. Whatever grain of a possibly reasonable point (such as whether various food colorings are necessary) is completely drained by her tsunami of pseudoscientific nonsensical fear mongering about chemicals, because chemicals she can’t pronounce are to her inherently bad.

Who is this “Food Babe,” anyway?

It’s a marker of just what a double-edged sword the Internet is. While the Internet is the most fantastic piece of technology ever devised for spreading knowledge and empowering anyone to speak up, there’s a dark side. That dark side consists of people like Vani Hari. No Internet, no Food Babe, no chemically illiterate, scientifically ignorant rabble rousing. How did she get her start? What are her qualifications?

The second question is easy to answer. She has no relevant qualifications. She isn’t a scientist. She isn’t a doctor. She isn’t a dietician. She has no training in nutrition. It’s not for nothing that she’s been referred to as the Mike Adams of food activism, which is not a compliment. In any case, according to her Wikipedia entry she has a B.S. in Computer Science and began her career as a banking consultant. In a story about how she got her start, Hari said:

I suffered from a lot of health problems early on in my career. I got a really cool job that demanded a lot of hours and traveling, so I was away from home eating whatever people in the office brought in. I got so sick and so overweight that I gained about 30 pounds within a few months, that I had appendicitis. A lot of people think that appendicitis has nothing to do with the way you eat, it’s a random occurrence, a lot of doctors think that it is just random, but I have no doubt that the reason why I had appendicitis was because of the way I was eating. It was kind of that life changing moment that brought me to bring health as my number one priority,” said Hari.

Hari, after learning and reading book upon book about living clean, taught herself how to eat and live a healthy lifestyle despite a busy schedule. From reading and learning, she decided to she wanted to spread her knowledge, so she began blogging.

“I said, ‘OK, yeah I will start a blog.’ So I started it last year in April, and I write about things I do on a daily basis,” said Hari.

Yes, it would appear that the Food Babe got her education from popular books and Google University and somehow got the messianic bug to save the world! Maybe a better way to describe her is the Jenny McCarthy of the food industry. Of course, I don’t mean that as a compliment. Just as Jenny McCarthy has been a prime force spreading fear and ignorance about vaccines, Vani Hari has been a malignant force promoting ignorance about food. Sure, mixed in with all the pseudoscience, antivaccine beliefs, and admiration of cranks like Russell Blaylock, is the occasional bit of good advice about eating more vegetables, avoiding too much processed food, and recipes that, for all I know, might actually be tasty. But the price is too high, buried as the occasional trivial bit of good advice is under the tsunami of nonsense.

She sure does have a talent for self-promotion, though. Come to think of it, that’s a lot like Jenny McCarthy, too.

ADDENDUM: Apparently the Food Babe noticed some of the blog posts quite rightly criticizing her for her disingenuous fear mongering and grandstanding and responded. It’s all the same blather about the evils of GMOs and corn syrup and such, but one paragraph does deserve a response:

There are a few blog posts circulating that indicate propylene glycol is used in the external chilling system at breweries and that it’s never is added to beer. They go as far to say that the only way it could be in beer is if there is a tank leak. Well, I’m not talking about leaking tanks here. The chemical Propylene Glycol Alginate (PGA) is added to some beers as a stabilizer for foam control and it is sold as an additive under various commercial names such as Stabilfoam. Another potential source of PGA is as a carrier for some “natural flavors” in fruit-flavored and cider beers. Propylene Glycol is added to many foods and drinks, it’s a very common food additive and I see it on ingredient lists everywhere at the grocery store. I know this because ingredient lists are on those items – but rarely on beer. In Germany, Propylene Glycol Alginate is listed as an ingredient on this bottle of Corona as “E405 Alginat” (the European food additive number for Propylene Glycol is E405), and you will also find it on this ingredient list on Sinebrychoff’s website in Finland. So, I’m really curious to know if and what other beers Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors may add this ingredient to.

Whoopie. So she found one beer that uses Propylene Glycol Alginate to stabilize foam. Sounds damning, right? Wrong. The chemical ignorance in her claim is silly. Propylene Glycol Alginate is not the same thing as propylene glycol, as a quick visit to something as easy as Wikipedia would reveal, if the Food Babe had even a modicum of chemical knowledge to realize it. Here’s the Wikipedia entry:

Chemically, propylene glycol alginate is an ester of alginic acid, which is derived from kelp. Some of the carboxyl groups are esterified with propylene glycol, some are neutralized with an appropriate alkali, and some remain free.

What this means is that propylene glycol alginate is alginic acid (derived from kelp) with propylene glycol groups attached to some of the carboxyl groups. It is not the same chemical as propylene glycol, not even close. It is not antifreeze. And the Food Babe is still an idiot.

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