February 11 2014

Useful Idiot Alert: The Food Babe

Julie Gunlock

Have you heard about the Food Babe?

She’s got quite a following. On Twitter, she has 46K followers. On Facebook, she has a whopping 319K followers. Her website is well designed (The Food Babe has a degree in computer science so that makes sense) and she’s clearly had her media training. She’s been on Good Morning America, the Today Show and on her fellow alarmist’s program, The Dr. “apple juice will kill you” Oz show, plus a whole bunch of other programs popular with moms.

The Food Babe has one clear mission: to scare moms so bad that they stop buying all that convenient and reasonably priced food they’ve grown to love and which makes their lives a little easier.  Because progress is your enemy, ladies!

She’s not asking much…just that you do your best to act more like her: eat only food produced by raw, whole ingredients that you cook yourself. Oh, but wait, it can’t be just any whole ingredients; they have to be organic and non-GMO. The evidence she provides to her readers that this strategy will lead to a healthier life? Exactly nothing.

Instead The Food Babe relies on alarmism. She’s essentially a shock jock of the food and nutrition world – relying not on scientific evidence but on emotion and scary personal anecdotes. And while she tries to portray herself as just an average mom (honey, the cocktail dresses and 6-inch heels are sort of a giveaway that you ain’t like the rest of us) she’s hardly that. 

Let me try to paint a picture. The Food Babe is that judge-y mom you see at school pickup. She’s that lady who criticizes you for bringing cupcakes to your child’s class for a birthday celebration. She’s that lady who gives you a dirty look when you show up at park with your happy meal-carrying three year old. She’s that smug lady who’s always sipping green stuff out of a BPA-free camelback and who always offers you unsolicited advice on how you can improve your parenting skills. In short, she’s a sanctimommy that profits from fear. Her strategy is simple: tell nervous moms they’re killing their kids by feeding them goldfish crackers, the occasional frozen meal, yogurt, fruit juices, fast food meals, boxes of mac-n-cheese, and on and on. You get it.

But what The Food Babe rarely reveals is that she isn’t even a nutritionist. Nor is she a toxicologist or a medical doctor. Yet she doles out nutrition, toxicological, and medical advice with the confidence of someone trained in all three areas.

Take her latest salvo: An attack on popular sandwich chain Subway for using trace amount of a preservative called azodicarbonamide in its bread. She’s super mad that Subway’s current advertising campaign uses the phrase “eat fresh” when they use this chemical to extend the shelf life of its subway rolls. And although The Food Babe likes to threaten companies by saying she’s going to visit them and demand changes (with a camera in tow), apparently while threatening the store manager of her local Subway, she managed to miss all the FRESH vegetables Subway sandwich makers offer to put on those super scary sandwiches. Hey, aren’t we supposed to be happy when restaurants offer fresh veggies to their customers?

Moving on. Let’s take a look at this so-called “dangerous” chemical about which The Food Babe is hyperventilating: What exactly is azodicarbonamid?

1)   Azodicarbonamid is a preservative that keeps bread fresh so that it stays on the shelf longer. Without this preservative, bread gets stale and even moldy. Personally, I’m glad preservatives like this are used to protect me and my kids from biting into a moldy Subway sandwich and I’m glad Subway is able to keep prices low so that I can get a quick, low fat, loaded-with-veggies sandwich when I’m out running a billion errands.

2)   Azodicarbonamid is also used in breads sold in grocery stores. Get ready for The Food Babe to move on to harassing grocery store managers. But moms should know that while these trace amounts of chemicals won’t do a thing to harm you or your children, they do a tremendous amount to keep costs down. Without the use of this chemical, bread wouldn’t last as long on the shelves and therefore, there would be greater waste, and ultimately higher prices on bread to account for the waste. I really don’t need my food prices to go up.

3)   Azodicarbonamid isn't harmful in the trace amounts it's used in the breads in Subway. What The Food Babe leaves out of her scary story is that you would have to eat a huge dose of this stuff (everyday for a long time) for it to cause any of the health issues the Food Babe is claiming.

4)   Lastly (and I know this will mean exactly nothing to the conspiracy enthusiasts – like The Food Babe -- who claim the FDA just approves things to please their BIG FOOD overlords, but…I’ll tell you reasonable moms): Azodicarbonamide is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the FDA. The FDA has set the limit at 45 parts per million (in other words, a teeny tiny amount). Manufacturers are required to follow FDA guidelines for their products.

But complicated things like science and the work that regulatory agencies do to monitor the safety of America’s food supply never make it into The Food Babe’s coverage. She doesn’t waste your time talking about things like “parts per million,” or that the FDA monitors these things and she certainly isn’t going to mention all that boring economic stuff about how making bread more vulnerable to mold will likely make bread prices increase. I mean, who has time for that stuff when there’s all these women to mislead and scare.

The Food Babe’s main objection to the chemical axodicarbonamide is that she can’t pronounce it. That’s right. It’s a toughie for her so AWAY WITH IT!

She offers this advice to women: “When you look at the ingredients, if you can't spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn't eat it.” That’s cute and effective but as Colby Vorland (an actual nutritionist!) points out, this is an absurd rule to follow (I suggest you read Vorland’s whole post about The Food Babe here). He points out:

“…can the average person pronounce pyridoxine hydrochloride - vitamin B6?”

That’s right. Using The Food Babe’s bad logic, you should avoid pyridoxine hydrochloride because it’s super duper hard to pronounce. But B6 is really important. Getting pyridoxine hydrochloride in your diet will give you more energy, help with brain function and help prevent heart disease. But for heavens sake, take The Food Babe’s advice and avoid this scary stuff because goodness, someone’s little brain has trouble with big words. 

Unfortunately, the Food Babe’s reach is going beyond scaring a few busy moms. In response to her ramblings, Subway caved and has said it will take the ingredient out of its bread. Senator Schumer (of, "oops, I thought this laundry pod was a piece of candy” fame) has also piped up, saying he thinks Congressional action is necessary (hey genius, the company just caved…maybe you can go back to doing more important things like bankrupting the nation).

This stuff riles me up (obviously). Alarmist babble, like The Food Babe’s latest attack, leads to companies making unnecessary changes to their products. It costs time, money and ultimately it might raise the prices of Subway sandwiches, which offer people a healthy, veggie-packed alternative to traditional fast food meals. Shouldn't we be making healthy food easier to access for those who live under the poverty line?

I wish companies would stand up to this sort of baloney. I wish they’d dispatch their chief science officers to call The Food Babe out on her scaremongering. Won’t someone on television ask this woman a tough question? Of course not. Her brand of alarmism is very popular these days, especially with the mainstream media who loves to promote a scary story. And as for food companies hitting back, no doubt, some high-priced public relations firm has advised against such an aggressive stand. I’m sure if this tactic was ever tried, The Food Babe would make a big show of crying into her Manolos about how Big Food is bullying her. 

That leaves it up to the real scientist and the real nutritionists and moms like me who are tired about being lied to by opportunistic alarmists like The Food Babe. But it’s also up to consumers to tell companies not to cave to this sort of bullying.  Lastly, it's time we all started speaking up against alarmism. If you hear other mothers talking about the "dangers" of Subway or bread purchased at the grocery store, don't sit there and listen pleasantly while thinking "what an idiot" to yourself. Speak up!  Explain why this is unscientific gibberish.

We all have a role in beating back the culture of alarmism and it's prophets like The Food Babe.

UPDATE: I've been informed by The Food Babe on Twitter that she's not a mom. 

UPDATE #2: The Food Babe has yet to address anything else in my post....

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