An interview with “The Food Babe”, Vani Hari.
In my early 20s I had a health scare that completely changed my outlook on how I wanted to take care of my body. I had let my work life take over and had my wake up moment. I was sick, overweight and looked horrible, but, from that day forward, I made a personal promise to make health my number one priority.
Especially now that I’m a mom I’m more motivated than ever to take good care of my health. Being energetic enough to keep up with my daughter really keeps me motivated to stay healthy. And, I love setting a good example for her. I want nothing more than to watch her grow up and, hopefully, have children of her own one day.
Your website, Food Babe, reaches millions of readers, and you have more than 1 million likes on Facebook — Who is your audience? What are they hoping to find?
My readers, whom I lovingly call the Food Babe Army, is a powerful group of people who are committed to demanding and actively creating change in the food industry. Not only do they care about their personal health, but they care enough to educate others. Our mission together is to create a healthier world full of the most nutritious, safe and wholesome food to feed ourselves and our families. We create public #awareness about what is in food, how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store and how to live an organic lifestyle in this over-processed world. We inspire change in the food industry, beginning within our local communities and expanding into the largest worldwide food corporations. In demanding that food manufacturers and retailers provide organic and nutritious food, we open the door for a greater supply of good, affordable food in the world around us. Collectively, we have the power to change the world.
You’ve talked about a major physical, mental and personal #transformation that occurred after you started eating “real food.” What was the transformation and what is “real food” exactly?
“Real food” isn’t spiked with chemical additives or overly processed. It’s whole foods— vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and meats etc. When I started eating an organic, real food diet something dramatic happened. All the issues I had as a child—asthma, eczema, allergies–went away. I was on several different prescription drugs depending on the season, and I’m on zero today. My weight normalized, and I actually lost another 5 pounds (on top of the other 35 pounds I gained!). I began to have more energy than I’d had when I was years younger! The way you treat yourself, the way you treat your body, what you put in it, can make a HUGE life-changing difference.
You’ve been described as wearing many hats–author, investigator, blogger, food babe, activist, etc… If you had to choose just one title, what resonates with you most?
Activist. My mission is to educate people about what’s really in food so they can make the best informed decisions for themselves. Everyone deserves to know exactly what they are eating.
Food is sexy, and the media love topics that can capture the attention of readers and viewers. I’m wondering if, as a result, we’ve blown the extent of the food problem out of proportion. I mean, should we really be so worried about the foods we eat?
Not everyone cares about what they eat, and that’s their prerogative. However, there is irrefutable evidence that what you eat affects your health.
We don’t know the overall dose of food additives we are actually ingesting. How many different food chemicals are people consuming in one meal, in one day, in one year? The overall load, especially for children, has been grossly understated, and the interactions among many of these synthetic compounds have never been studied.
For example, a study out of Purdue University stated that children are exposed to up to 15 times more artificial food dyes than the dose approved by the FDA. The former Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, Michael Taylor, admitted to the Washington Post, “We do not know the volume of particular chemicals that are going into the food supply so we can diagnose trends. We do not know what is going on post-market”.
There’s an implication out there that everything allowed in processed food – preservatives, artificial sweeteners, thickeners, stabilizers, emulsifiers – have gone through some sort of rigorous safety testing by the FDA proving they’re okay to eat – but in most cases they haven’t! And sometimes the FDA reviews an ingredient, deems it unsafe, and companies use a loophole to sneak the ingredients into our food supply anyway!
In an NPR article, there were researchers/scientists among others who described you as a “fearmonger.” You were also criticized (somewhat) in the NY Times. Can you talk about how you handle all this #criticism, and what is your response to these claims?
I was naive when I started blogging on Food Babe back in 2011. I thought everyone would be happy about what I wrote because I was helping people. I had no idea that my investigations into the food industry would produce such a firestorm.
After we succeeded in changing dozens of food company ingredients and food practices for the better, we (the Food Babe Army) became a TARGET. Droves of critics were unleashed to take me down. They were organized by people with deep pockets, with a mission to protect the billion-dollar processed food and chemical industry. Now that I look back, I see how ignorant I was to think that nothing would happen to me.
This group of critics weaseled their way into major newspapers all over the place and said horrible things about me (that I was a crackpot and a bimbo, and worse). This was done to damage my credibility and to make me look like an uneducated crazy person. At first, I couldn’t pin down exactly what was going on. I had my suspicions, of course. And then slowly the truth started to reveal itself. I submitted freedom of information act (FOIA) requests and received hundreds of internal emails. I met with someone who admitted he was paid by a firm to discredit my work online. I went behind the scenes to really figure out more about what was going on. My eyes were opened to a whole world of corruption.
What I have now found is compelling evidence showing that many of my critics were connected to and taking money from the food and chemical industries. I also discovered that the industry will stop at nothing to keep their unhealthy products on the market, even if it means lying repeatedly to the public.
And, this series of events led me to realize how many lies the food industry has told us over the years. They manipulate us to buy their products and they use dirty tactics just as the tobacco industry has done. I had an epiphany. I knew I had to tell people all about this. That’s when the book Feeding You Lies was born.
The industry wants to control the narrative – so that everything you see on TV, in the news, on billboards and on food packages is pro-processed food, pro-chemical, pro-Big Ag, and pro-Big Food. I refuse to let them silence me. I will not back down from telling what I know to anyone who will listen. And plenty of people are listening. That is WHY I wrote that book.
I imagine that by exposing questionable ingredients used by food companies you can make enemies in the process. Have any food companies sued you or threatened to sue you? Are there any other threats, concerns,or stories you want to talk about, based on having taken on these companies?
While I was writing my latest book, I received a shocking internal email from Coca-Cola. Right there in black in white, I read how Coca-Cola tried to lobby the FDA against us. In the months following our successful campaigns to get “yoga mat” out of Subway, the artificial dyes out of Kraft Mac & Cheese, and the caramel coloring out of Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, Coca-Cola took aim at our ability to convince major food companies to change. You see, we were hurting their bottom line, and they wanted to stop that. As I read through Coca-Cola’s correspondence I couldn’t believe the lengths they had gone to try to stop our movement. Their email proposal to the FDA is published on my blog at FoodBabe.com.
There is no denying that you have been incredibly successful at raising public awareness of food issues and creating an impassioned following, How do you do it? What is it about these campaigns that resonates with people?
People want to know the truth about their food. Knowing what you are eating is really powerful and can dramatically improve your health!
You and the Food Baby Army have achieved some amazing victories, from encouraging Chipotle to disclose their ingredient list to pushing Kraft to remove artificial food dyes from their Mac & Cheese products marketed to children. What keeps you motivated? And what is your latest fight?
Right now I’m busy getting Feeding You Lies into the hands of everyone I can. This is not your typical diet and health book. This is a revealing investigation into the food industry’s playbook. You’ll become your own health investigator after reading this book — and stop falling victim to the food industry’s lies that have kept us from feeling our best.
Can you tell us some more about your book Feeding You Lies: How to Unravel the Food Industry’s Playbook and Reclaim Your Health?
When you sell food that makes people sick, it turns out you have to spend a lot of time and money trying to convince people it’s not your fault. Just as the tobacco industry invested millions of dollars trying (in vain) to discredit the research showing the link between smoking and lung cancer, so has Big Food invested huge resources into persuading people that their unhealthy products aren’t behind the obesity, type 2 diabetes, and chronic diseases affecting Americans on a grand scale.
In this book, I provide you with the knowledge you need to make informed decisions. I help you overcome the obstacles standing in the way of your taking greater responsibility for your health. I help you dig deeper and look for your own evidence of deception in today’s food world. I help you take control of your life—and change it for the better.
This book isn’t only a manifesto that recounts the sins of the food industry. I go beyond that. I give you recommendations for personal action that can protect you from cheap, processed, unhealthy foods and the health problems and suffering they cause. In every chapter, I offer action steps—including my 48-Hour Toxin Takedown at the end of the book—that will help you avoid chemical onslaughts from food and get healthy in the process. You’ll end your sugar and processed food addictions, lose pound after pound, never diet again, and rejuvenate your energy levels, mental fitness and overall well-being.
Is there something about nutrition you’ve learned in the past few years that you haven’t discussed in a book or an interview and that would surprise us?
The chemicals in the packaging material that touches and can leach into our food is very concerning. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors that are affecting human health. I would like to see more research in this area so we can be better informed about our risks.
With all you know and all you’ve discovered, what scares you most about the foods we eat?
The vast amount of synthetic chemicals being sprayed on our crops. These chemicals are infiltrating our environment on such a grand scale that even organic food is being cross-contaminated.
Can you define the term “HEALTHY EATING?”
Eating as close to nature as possible. Real, local, whole foods, rather than packaged unhealthy foods created by an industry that largely puts profits over people.
Should we ONLY be eating organic foods?
This isn’t always possible. My rule of thumb is when I’m in control and have the choice, I’ll choose organic. But if I don’t have the choice, like when I’m traveling to certain places, then I’ll make sacrifices.
Should we avoid #GMO foods?
I am not fundamentally against biotechnology. I’m not even necessarily against all GMO food, although I acknowledge that certain experts stress how much uncertainty remains about their safety. I believe companies pushing such products should present clear evidence that they are not causing harm, either to people or to the ecosystems we depend upon. Companies should also clearly label their food products so consumers are informed that they contain GMOs. If that position makes me a radical, then so be it. To me, it feels like common sense. However, what I am strongly against are the synthetic chemicals that almost always go hand in hand with genetically modified crops.
Your proudest moment?
Watching my daughter, Harley, embrace a real food lifestyle.-She literally eats it all, including foods I didn’t even know about until my late 20s, like kale, bok choy and kimchi. It makes me so happy that she enjoys nourishing healthy foods.
What’s your motto?
“No mud, no lotus.” What the saying means is that without struggle there is no progress. We’ve struggled through all the food industry’s lies. We’ve put up with their terrible products and dealt with the downward spiral of obesity, diabetes and disease they’ve largely caused. But that doesn’t mean we won’t clean up the food system — because we are making incredible progress. This is one of the reasons I started my own company, Truvani – to sell real food products without chemicals, products without toxins and labels without lies.
What is the best advice you have been given?
When I started to get personally attacked in the media, one of my dear mentors said: “Did you think the powerful chemical companies and food giants of the world were going to let us waltz right into their world and turn it upside down?”
Hearing this gave me perspective on the impact we are making as activists. If you do things that are remarkable, people are going to remark, and if they fight back, it means you are winning.
You’re worst summer job?
I liked all my jobs — my favorite was waiting tables at The Original Pancake House. We’d have to be in by 5am to churn fresh-made butter, cut strawberries and make OJ, and then we’d wait tables until noon and be off for the rest of the day. It was so much fun.
Can you share your favorite recipe?
There are so many! Right now I’m loving this turkey kale soup.
Grew up in: Charlotte, NC
City or town you call home: Charlotte, NC
Job title: Activist & New York Times Best Selling Author
As a child you wanted to be: a waitress
Background and education: B.S. In Computer Science
One word you would use to describe our food system: Corrupt
Foodie hero: Rachel Carson
Your breakfast this morning: Steel cut oats, ground flaxseed with fresh berries
Favorite food: Bread
Favorite dessert: Cake
Last meal on Earth: Dosa in South India
Your healthiest habit: Drinking or eating something green every single day
Least healthy habit: Do not spend enough time with friends
Food policy social media must follow: @USRightToKnow,@NRDCFood
Newsletter, website or book you can’t stop reading: Power vs. Force – David Hawkins
Your proudest “Food” moment: Seeing my brother start to change his food habits. He’s never looked better!