The Food Babe, Vani Hari, is a revolutionary food activist and the author of a new book called The Food Babe Way. I sat down to interview her about her food investigations, GMO’s in processed foods, and changes to the food industry in America.
FL. Why did you begin investigating the foods Americans consume?
Vani I began my food journey, like most people, by following the standard American diet. As a successful management consultant, I was either in the office eating whatever take-out was available, or I was on the road eating every meal out. Although this lifestyle allowed me to fit in with my peers and work crazy hours, it also took a huge toll on my body and I became very ill. Over the holiday season over ten years ago, I found myself in a hospital bed. I was sick, overweight, and I was ready to change! I made a personal promise that from that point on that I was going to make health my number one priority. FoodBabe.com was born in April 2011, from my years of learning, investigating and researching how to live a healthy lifestyle in this overly processed world. As I learned more about the habits needed for a healthy lifestyle and what dangerous ingredients to avoid, my friends and family begged me to start a blog in order to share everything I had uncovered. My first investigation was into my favorite yogurt chain. After the CEO responded to my writings by yanking some of the misleading marketing, I continued writing about the injustices and corrupt practices of the food industry. Over the past three years, FoodBabe.com has grown to have a readership of over 4 million inspired individuals who are seeking to lead heather lives and rid our food system of deadly ingredients. It is through the help of the entire Food Babe Army that the investigations and petitions on FoodBabe.com have been able to force some of the largest food corporations to change, including Kraft, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Subway, Anheuser-Busch, and Starbucks.
FL. Why is it important for everyone to learn how to read food labels and avoid food additives?
Vani Many of the food additives that the FDA deems safe, have not be studied long term and no one has studied the cumulative effect of all the food additives we are eating. The Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, Michael Taylor, recently 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”. These food-like substances are made from chemicals that are cheap, provide zero nutritional value and improve the bottom line of food manufacturers. Fake foods do nothing for our health and in some cases could cause harm.
FL. What do you find most shocking about processed food in America?
Vani I was floored when I discovered that several American food companies are using harmful additives that are not used — and in some cases banned — in other countries. One of those products is an iconic staple that almost every American, me included, has had at one time or another: Kraft Mac & Cheese. I found it hypocritical that Kraft was selling Mac & Cheese overseas with natural dyes paprika and beta carotene (real food) and meanwhile, here they were selling petroleum-based food dyes (yellow #5 and yellow #6 linked to a myriad of health issues) to their fellow Americans. This double standard made me so angry, I started a petition. After receiving over 350,000 signatures and leading a strong 7 month campaign, Kraft announced that it’s starting to remove artificial food dyes from some Mac & Cheese varieties marketed to children and now has started to make those changes to additional products. It’s alarming that the FDA allowing additives that are banned or restricted in other countries and linked to health risks like azodicarbonamide, BHT, BHA, and parabens. Europe has taken a precautionary principle towards several food additives and banned or labeled them for their citizens. Why isn’t the United States doing the same?
FL. How would you define The Food Babe Way?
Vani It is a roadmap on how to live in this over-processed food world. I have made it my life’s mission to tell people the truth about what’s in their food and how it could affect their health and now in this book I get to give people this critical information. The Food Babe Way contains the 21 essential habits that I taught myself to take control of my health. This book is for anyone who is tired of the food industry hijacking their taste buds and wants to take matters in their own hands and become their own food investigator, nutritionist and food activist. We have the power to change our health faster than anyone else and I wrote this book to show people how to do just that.
FL. There are some vocal critics of your campaigns. What is your response to that?
Vani Food is an emotional topic and it can be polarizing. People don’t always want to hear that the food they have been eating contains a controversial ingredient or possibly been damaging their health and this can lead to resistance. Many critics that speak out frequently against my ideas are ones that either support the chemical companies and food companies or are critical of natural therapies in general. It is my job to tell the truth and I leave it up to the consumer to choose how they react and what they do with that information. I’m intensely passionate and won’t stop until everybody has access to safe and affordable food and knows exactly what is in their food. This is a movement about transparency in the food system. Everyone deserves to know exactly what they are eating and my job will not be done until we all have this information.
FL. For those who are new to the concept of GMOs, what should they know?
Vani In the U.S., our food is missing a very important label — one that President Obama, the FDA and the USDA have made a concerted effort to deny us from having. This label is for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are in 80% of our processed food. GMOs are foods biologically manufactured in laboratories — injected with new DNA, viruses, herbicides, insecticides and/or other chemicals — to be resistant to synthetic chemicals and are completely different than hybridizing techniques allowed by nature. These foods have only been in our food supply since 1996 and long-term health impacts were not conducted before they were approved. As I mentioned in my recent op-ed in the NY Times, these foods can be labeled “natural” because the FDA has completely been asleep at the wheel. GMOs receive patents by the U.S. Patent Office because they have been deemed to be unique and different. Over 64 countries around the world require GMOs to be labeled or regulated. The U.S. does not. This is one of the most un-American policies that exist. We have the right to know what’s in our food just like people in countries like China and Russia do — especially when studies have linked GMOs to a wide variety of diseases like infertility and cancer.
FL. Do you see signs that things are moving in the right direction when it comes to safer food ingredients in America?
Vani Change is happening and I’m seeing a lot of progress across the industry, as companies are starting to remove artificial and unnecessary additives from their products. After I petitioned Subway and they removed the additive azodicarbonamide from their bread, Pizza Hut, Bimbo Bakeries, Martin’s Potato Bread, Nature’s Own, Olive Garden, Starbucks, and Publix Grocery Store announced plans to remove the chemical from their products too. Last year, Panera Bread announced they’re removing all artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, Chipotle is ditching GMOs, and McDonald’s is simplifying and possibly getting rid of some preservatives. Chick-fil-A is finally going to start serving chicken that wasn’t raised on antibiotics, and Carls Jr. now has a “Natural” burger with grass-fed beef raised without antibiotics or added hormones – although the bun and toppings are still dreadful, it’s a start in the right direction.
FL. What was your biggest lesson learned from writing The Food Babe Way?
Vani It was impossible to put everything I have discovered about our food system in one book. I worked very carefully to choose what I felt was the most urgent and important topics to share. On a personal level, writing this book has taught me a great lesson in taking care of myself no matter how large the project at hand. There were times where I let the stress of deadlines start to impact my habits, but thankfully the message I was writing helped me get back on track.
FL. What is next for you?
Vani As for now I am still focusing on spreading the messages and life changing habits I’ve written about in The Food Babe Way. I know that this book has the ability to change the way the world eats. This is truly the book the food industry doesn’t want you to read.
Vani Hari is a revolutionary food activist living in North Carolina and the author of the new book, The Food Babe Way that contains 21 essential habits to take control of your health in this overprocessed world. To learn more about her please visit Foodbabe.com.