There are lots of reasons to mistrust the food industry and, no doubt, we need more consumer advocates who can bring pressure on the industry when it puts profit ahead of good food. But what we don’t need is quackery and misinformation.
One of the highest-profile of these new food crusaders is Vani Hari, better known by her online moniker, Food Babe. Among her victories: a petition that nudged Kraft to drop the artificial orange color from its mac and cheese, and another one that helped get Subway to do away with the common bread additive azodicarbonamide — which Hari noted was also used in making yoga mats.
The problem is that many of her crusades are based on ignorance, leading many to call her the Jenny McCarthy of food:
Take, for example, Hari’s campaign urging beer-makers to reveal the ingredients in their brews. Among the ingredients that concerned Hari was propylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze. But, as cancer surgeon and blogger David Gorski writes, the product used in some beers to stabilize foam is actually propylene glycol alginate — which is derived from kelp. “It is not the same chemical as propylene glycol, not even close. It is not antifreeze,” he wrote.
Another beer ingredient that got Hari up in arms? Isinglass, or dried fish swim bladders, which may sound, well, fishy, but has been used to clarify beers for well over a century. Such mix-ups prompted historian Maureen Ogle, the author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, to dissect Hari’s claims, point by point, in a post on her site titled “What’s In YOUR Beer? Or, The Dangers of Dumbassery.”
Modern communications media and our tendency toward anti-elitism can sometimes be a toxic brew allowing know-nothings peddling fear to become celebrities. Irrational panic is one of the greatest dangers of our time; we don’t need the ill-informed stoking those fears even when well-intentioned.
We want to believe that good intentions are sufficient to solve problems, but there is no substitute for genuine knowledge and expertise.