Field of Science

The problem with Food Babe

The Charlotte Observer has a good article on Food Babe, a health and nutrition activist who has been responsible for many a scientist and science writer's heartburn over the last few years, and not for good reasons.

The article places Food Babe's current activism against processed food and many food ingredients in a personal context; as is often the case, her conversion was triggered by many things, but most precipitously by an epiphany:

"Sometimes when she tells her story, she says she suffered from “a serious health crisis.” It actually was appendicitis, in 2002. Although appendicitis is not often linked to nutrition, she decided hers was caused by inflammation she blamed on her diet. 
She calls it “a light-bulb moment.” She started reading about organics and changed to a diet free of processed foods. Although she isn’t a vegetarian, she gave up beef and says she only eats organic or locally raised chicken and fish."
But as often happens with epiphanies, this one was triggered for the wrong reasons, and in fact it provides a useful lens to view the flaws in her work: The fact that appendicitis is not often linked to nutrition but was still construed by her as something that must have been a result of her diet seems to be a disconnect consistent with many of the things she says on her site.

Read more here:
My problem with Food Babe is not her intentions - promoting a healthy lifestyle and diet - which are honorable but the grossly misleading mistakes she makes when she plays fast and loose with basic scientific facts, most notably chemistry. In fact several of the mistakes she makes are so consistent that they can be encapsulated in general categories, of which I will list two major ones here.

Category mistake 1: Claiming that food ingredient X must be harmful because it is used for some unrelated purpose Y. 

Thus, in one of her recent posts, azodicarbonamide which was used in Subway sandwiches was declared to be harmful because it is used in "yoga mats and shoe soles". When employing this tactic the author is using a classic psychology trick, to color someone's opinion through guilt by association. By that token, common salt should be harmful because it is used to deice roads in winter. Or as McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz says, “We use water to wash our cars. Vinegar can be used to kill weeds. If she ever found out, she’d want salad dressing banned.”

The second category of mistakes made by Food Babe involves a woeful lack of understanding of basic chemistry. One of her favorite targets is a food additive named TBHQ (tertiary butyl hydroquinone). Note the word "butyl" in the name, derived from the name of the gas "butane". This word leads Food Babe to conclude that using TBHQ must be the same thing as using butane, "a toxic gas". Butane is surely a toxic and flammable gas, but one of the fundamental truths of chemistry - and of science for that matter - is that the whole is wildly different from the identity of the individual parts. The properties of TBHQ have nothing per se to do with the properties of butane. Again, guilt by association, and an ignorance of basic chemistry.

Category mistake 2: Claiming that food ingredient Y must have the same properties as the chemical ingredients it's made from.

Using Food Babe's logic, water should be considered harmful because it is made from hydrogen and oxygen, two inflammable and corrosive gases. And common salt should be even worse because it's made from a highly flammable metal (sodium) and a corrosive gas (chlorine) which is so bad that it was used as a chemical weapon in World War 1. Even Food Babe does not take her logic this far (since, presumably, being told to avoid water would be too much both for her and her readers), but the category mistake is exactly the same (incidentally her scorn for TBHQ is also part of the first category mistake: it's a preservative "derived from petroleum and used in perfumes, resins, varnishes and oil field chemicals.")

There are many other quite misleading and basic scientific howlers on her website; for instance many food additives are proclaimed to be "linked to" or "known to" cause a variety of major diseases including cancer and Alzheimer's. But there is no mention of the dose, the statistical significance, the kind of animal the additive was tested in (typically mice or rats, results on which can almost never be properly extrapolated to human beings). Science is always in the details and many health related studies can be tentative, but this is particularly so in the fields of nutrition biology and epidemiology where context matters a lot.

Sadly, most of the readers of Food Babe's website are non-scientists who are not equipped to deconstruct these fine points of epidemiological studies, so at least a few of them trust her. Her successes in causing some large corporations to phase out certain food additives from the products - which as the article notes is less a measure of her success and more a measure of a large corporation's shrewd strategy to minimize public fallout without affecting its bottom line - extends the trust. To her credit the author does allow a lot of critical comments pointing out some of these mistakes on her posts, but she has rarely responded to them and the comments don't seem to have affected her basic take on these matters.

Food Babe's goal is laudable, but in propagating these basic scientific errors and misleading opinions, she is not only ignoring fundamental facts which are not in dispute but is also performing a great disservice to her readers who are coming to her website for finding out the truth about food products. It's hard to justify getting basic facts wrong if your goal is to seek the truth.

Ironically, the right remedy comes from her own words: At one point, when she is asked whether the name 'Food Babe' would cause people to trust her less, she says that it would only be a problem for people who look at labels and interpret them simplistically. Maybe she could apply the same logic to 'TBHQ' herself?

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  1. Ash,

    I don't know if you've seen this post from today but it meshes well with your post here from yesterday.

    It's the kind of satirical story that could easily wind up as life imitating art.

    On another note, I saw your comment recently about having a fever while taking the chemistry GRE. I also had a fever around 104 F when I took the chemistry GRE (actually it was both the chemistry and general on the same day). I wound up earning my Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry. Maybe it's something with having a fever during the chemistry GRE that drives one insane so they they study theoretical chemistry. :)

    1. Dark, but funny! Glad to hear about your GRE experience (the common connection with theoretical chemistry, that is, not the 104 F fever).

  2. By the same logic, butter gives the name butyric acid and from that -butyl-butane-etc So all butyl compounds must be edible like butter.

  3. "She calls it “a light-bulb moment.”"

    If I had such a moment, and shared it with my biochemist wife, I'm pretty sure she'd call it a "dim-bulb moment."

  4. So, is there an anti-Food Babe. You know, someone that is correctly discussing the chemistry of food?

    1. Yeah. She goes by the name of SciBabe.

    2. SciBabe does a laudable job of keeping her feet to the fire. And she's humorous in the process.

  5. Light-bulb moment: when the bulb blows and you fumble around in the dark and imagine things to be there.

  6. OMG! Organic bananas are radioactive!


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