Food Babe, AKA Vani Hari, is one of my heroes in health journalism. She has single-handedly removed numerous questionable chemical from our food supply. I’m proud to count her as a friend – I hope you enjoy this interview we did recently.
Vani Hari Interview – By Dr. Alan Christianson
Dr. C: Hey, there! Dr. Alan Christianson here with you. This is a real treat today. I’m a huge fan of my good friend here with me. She has had more to do with shifting the scope of foods you buy, and their ingredients, than probably any person I know. In terms of what affects our health, what is more important than this? We have food availability and options, but there hasn’t been good policing of what is going into the food. Vani Hari has been the pioneer behind shifting that and creating more awareness. I’m so glad to have her here to share with us all. Welcome!
Vani: Thank you so much, Dr. Christianson. I really appreciate it. I’m excited to have this conversation with you.
Dr. C: I don’t think she needs much of an intro, but I will throw out there that Vani has been called one of the most influential people on the internet by Time magazine. She started foodbabe.com as recent as April 2011, but all the things that have happened since have been huge. There have been phenomenal changes in major companies, grocery stores and restaurants.
Funny, the people who seem to do the best in some way, often don’t come from that industry. They come from a different industry but have skills that can transfer. Vani has a background in computer science, debate, logic and understanding concepts very well. She has taken her background and merged it into this crusade.
Vani, your family is newer to the country. You were in your adolescence going through a tough time when your health shifted. Can you tell us a bit about that—about your early years and how you evolved into Food Babe? I think it’s an awesome story.
Vani: Yes, absolutely. My parents had an arranged marriage in India. My dad had been living here a few years before he went back to have the arranged marriage with my mom in India. He married her and brought her back here for their honeymoon. The first thing my dad introduced her to was a hamburger. “If we are going to live in America, we are going to eat like Americans.” He raised my brother and me by this motto. He said, “If you want to eat American food, we are going to feed you American food. We aren’t going to make you eat any of the Indian food we are cooking for ourselves. We are going to allow you to fit right in.” I really wanted to fit in when I was little because we were one of the only Indian families on my block. My house smelled funnier than everybody else’s because my mom was always cooking up spices for herself.
I thought the Indian food looked funny and tasted funny. Nothing tasted as good as McNuggets at McDonald’s and the burgers at Burger King I loved to eat. I can probably name every menu item at every fast food place because I ate fast food 3-5 times (or more) a week growing up. On top of that, I ate a processed food diet. I ate the school-system food. My dad thought it was a great deal: $1.00 for lunch! He loved that. He didn’t take the time to make my lunch. We embraced this American lifestyle.
As a result, I was very sick as a child, and so was my brother. We both had allergies, eczema and asthma. We were on several medications. My brother was seven years older than I, so my parents used on me the same method they used on him: take us to doctors who would give us a lot of medications, steroids and antibiotics. Whatever they could do to control these ailments, they did. As a result, I continued this pattern of treating the symptoms and not treating the problem.
It wasn’t until my early twenties I recognized what I was eating and doing was affecting my body. It’s when I hit rock bottom and was on eight prescription
drugs. I’d been through several health issues. One was getting my appendix taken out, which may seem like a minor surgery, but, it was very rough on my body. It took several weeks for me to recover. This was a lot longer than most people because my body was so inflamed and sick, and my digestive tract was so out of whack.
Dr. C: You were in college then?
Vani: This happened the first year out of college. Shortly thereafter, I had endometriosis and went through another surgery to try to correct it. I was going through these issues and had many stressors at work. I’d end up at the doctor’s office and would say, “I can’t sleep. My boss is driving me crazy. I don’t know what to do.” Since I was going through a rough time, the internal medicine doctor would automatically tell me to take Ambien or Xanax (depression medications). He never suggested I consider quitting my job (since I have an impressive resume), or take up yoga or try some type of stress relief as an answer to my inability to sleep. He never told me to look at how much caffeine I was drinking or any of the more logical things I could look at.
I did what the doctors told me to do for a long time. Eventually, I started to wake up and feel so bad that I knew there was some other way to improve my body. So, I started to channel skills I learned in high school when I was a debater and learned how to research. Back then, we didn’t have Google, so we had to go to the library, go through the microfiche and read the medical journals and other things to get evidence. So, I started to do that with my own health.
One of the first books I read was by Dr. Gabriel Cousens. It’s a thick book, called CONSCIOUS EATING. You may have read it; it’s a great book. I’m actually rereading it because I learned so much about nutrition from it. It’s very in-depth and has much wisdom regarding the fact we aren’t all the same creatures. We’re all different in the way we metabolize food, and we each have to find the right diet and right way to treat our bodies.
I started doing what he suggested. I investigated all the foods I was eating and what foods I should be eating. I found the majority of food I was eating was made up of one or two ingredients: corn or soy and had been highly processed. A lot of the food I was eating was not food! There were many chemical additives with long, complicated names that the food industry had invented only to improve the bottom line of their pockets and not improve our health. They had no nutritional quality.
I started to use some basic, common sense in my diet. I became my own expert in my health and started to apply the principles I was learning, and my body changed. It went 180° in a totally new, wonderful direction! It went from someone who was very sick with skin issues and no energy, in and out of doctors’ offices, on several prescription drugs to a new being of health! I became a person who looked bright, happy and full of energy! I got off every one of the prescription drugs I was on.
To think I was on eight prescription drugs in my twenties is crazy. Now, I’m almost in my forties and couldn’t even think about taking a prescription drug because I know there are so many miracle remedies in just food alone and supplements. It’s mind-boggling to me that I dealt with the side effects of those different drugs that were giving me lack of energy and causing a lot of different issues. Because of the antibiotics I was on (almost every single year as a child through my young adult years), I had gut issues. Now I know, from reading books and studying your work, of the missing microbes, and it’s clear I had really messed up my body.
Dr. C: You had a body that was being fed really badly and medically managed very badly, but I wouldn’t say it was inherently messed up because now it is blossoming again!
Vani: Thank you for saying that because it’s important for people to know the body can heal itself. When it does, it’s miraculous, and you want to tell everyone about it, so everyone can feel this way! That is why I do the work I do. I know there is a better way for the majority of people out there, and they just haven’t unlocked it yet. They haven’t figured it out for themselves. They haven’t taken the time to do the investigative work and research to become their own health advocate. That is what the Food Babe movement is about: Everyone can become their own nutritionist. They can become their own health advocate. They don’t have to earn a doctorate degree or have dedicated their whole life to this study. They can pick this up any moment in time and make a profound impact on their health.
This is what I did, and my friends and family saw this shift and couldn’t believe it! To this day, my aunt thinks I had work done because she can’t believe my body changed that much! I laugh because I hate hospitals and would never go under the knife!
It goes to show that when you start to pay attention to what you’re eating and to your health—when you put it first, above all—that’s when you can start to contribute and give back in ways you never thought were possible. You can find your calling in life. I don’t think it’s even possible to find your calling in life and give what you need to give in this life unless you take care of yourself first. You have to unlock that health in you.
There’s no way I would’ve been able to open up foodbabe.com while working a 60-hour week job in the corporate world, and do all the things I was doing. I wouldn’t have been able to take on all these giant corporations, and all that’s entailed in this type of work, if I weren’t taking care of myself and had the needed energy. I’m not talking about self-medicating with caffeine and drugs. I’m talking about doing this naturally. It’s allowed me to connect with so many people out there.
What’s beautiful about this world, and the work we both do, is we’re able to connect now with so many people because of the internet and social media. We’re able to bring together this community that not only cares about their health, but about other people’s health, too. They care about the mom who still doesn’t know McDonald’s hamburger has an ingredient found in yoga mats. They care about the person out there who’s buying the factory-farmed meat, thinking it is perfectly fine because it says “no hormones” on the label, which is a false dichotomy on the package.
All the things we are getting into detail about on foodbabe.com is so people not only share about their own health and make the best decisions at the grocery store when they buy food, but they carry this message on. That’s what is so beautiful about this community, this food movement, we are living in. It has grown dramatically in just the last few years. It’s been amazing to be a part of this with people like you and others. There are so many activists that have made all these changes possible. It’s really what can happen when you start to take care of your health.
Dr. C: What you brought up about how you were able to do what you did, even with the 60-hour work weeks, leads me to think of a misconception people have: If they do the fast food and caffeine and alcohol (and whatever else), that, sure it’s setting them back in the long term, but for now, it feels better. Here is my argument to this mentality, in relation to what you were illustrating: Probably the biggest, most hedonistic thing you can do is be crazy healthy! That feels the best. That is the pinnacle!
Vani: It totally is.
Dr. C: A big part of what you’ve done is bring out concepts and chemicals that we’ve not been aware of. You’ve also made those things understandable. Long words may bounce off someone’s head, but we all know what a yoga mat is, and we wouldn’t eat it!
Vani: A lot of people hate me for that. A lot of chemists, scientists and people who take their stuff very literally, hate me for the fact I’ve taken complex ingredients in our food (or are invented for a certain purpose) and related them to items everyday people can understand. They use it when they write articles to attempt to get people to stop following me or looking at my work. It’s interesting the amount of criticism and backlash I’ve gotten for sharing this information because it’s hitting the bottom line of the food scientists who create these chemicals, the companies that sell these chemicals and the companies that produce these chemicals. It’s hitting all three of those, and not to mention, the farmers who are using some of these chemicals to grow their food (that I talk about). So, there’s a lot of money we are disrupting during this food movement, and we are shifting toward more natural and organic food practices.
When I worked in the corporate world, I was a technologist. I majored in computer science and understood technology pretty well. In the business world, I was sort of the middle man—the person who could explain the technology to the business person. I’ve used those skills to actually explain what’s happening in the food industry in a way people can understand. I’ve explained the food chemicals I’ve learned about, how the FDA regulates them and what their purpose is.
It’s been fascinating to see the amount of education that has occurred in the last few years—to see the conversations people are having about these ingredients online, in social forums and in comments—and the way they recognize ingredients like these and know to put the package back on the shelf when they see them.
For instance, it’s remarkable to see what people know now. They know what azodicarbonamide is. It’s remarkable Subway would even use that ingredient on their commercial, saying “We no longer have azodicarbonamide.” I could not predict, in a million years, that would happen! I was on the couch with my husband when we saw the commercial. He looked at me, and we gave each other a high five! People now know azodicarbonamide was banned all over the globe. The World Health Organization deemed it an asthmatic trigger when workers used it, and it can be a skin rash proponent. I discovered all these things through research.
People say, “You know, Vani, you got this ingredient out of Subway bread, but does it truly make it healthier?” My response is, “That wasn’t the point. The point was to awaken the American public to a conversation about the ingredients in food, so they start to pay attention.”
I’ll give you a perfect example of that. I took on Kraft Mac & Cheese for the yellow 5 and yellow 6 they were adding. The yellow 5 and yellow 6 are very controversial. They require a warning label in Europe. The label states it may have adverse effects on activities and attention in children. Several studies, like the Southampton study, have indicated the amount of food dyes American children (and other children around the world) are accustomed to, have increased dramatically. A study from Purdue University recently linked these to hyperactivity in children, as well as asthma, eczema, skin rashes and all sorts of problems with the human body.
When I petitioned Kraft, we got close to 400,000 signatures on the petition. It took Kraft so long to finally decide to remove those artificial food dyes, that all the other products out there with artificial food dyes were being put on notice. For example, someone said, “Hey, Vani, I noticed my Gatorade has artificial food dyes, so I’m not going to buy that anymore.” “Hey, Vani, I noticed my M&M’s have artificial food dyes—the same ones you talk about that cause hyperactivity in children, and I don’t want my kids eating that.” So, this shift started occurring, and now, not only is Kraft removing artificial food dyes, but Mars is removing them from M&M’s, Kellogg and General Mills are removing them from the cereals, Nestle, Hershey…You have the whole industry now saying these artificial food dyes are “out”, and consumers don’t want them. That’s how changes are made. That’s how a food revolution starts to occur, just by focusing on one ingredient in one product.
Dr. C: That is so cool. You’ve totally shifted the interaction between the consumers and corporations, as well. If someone were to question whether taking azodicarbonamide out of the Subway bread makes it healthier, the answer is, you decreased the chemical burden in it. Even if the corporations aren’t concerned about health, they are concerned about the perception of health. So, inadvertently, things are going to improve, and we’re going to get better products because of it.
Vani: Subway suffered a huge, detrimental image impact. Their image went so far down afterward because people thought they were eating “fresh”, and all of a sudden, they realized they’re eating yoga mat chemicals. What’s so beautiful is, Subway was forced to make some major changes. Not only did they take out the azodicarbonamide, but they took out all the artificial, synthetic preservatives in their ingredients. They took out all the artificial colors. They’ve also made a commitment to go antibiotic-free. They’re making huge progress to rebuild their brand, due simply to the momentum of one or two campaigns.
Dr. C: That’s awesome. You talked earlier about chemists whose feathers have been ruffled—who’ve been upset because of your work. As a healthy exercise, I practice reading opposite views to mine. (I don’t know if you know, but there are actually some “Flat Earth” societies. There are many people who still believe the earth is flat. They have some rather persuasive, interesting arguments!)
I read what a lot of your critics wrote when I was studying your work. You know, Kurt Cobain (from Nirvana) said he never felt successful until “Weird Al” did a parody of his work. It’s a mark of visibility. The thing that struck me is there’s actually a book written about you. I read the entire book and found it odd, as they never went into any of the merits of your arguments. They never took the fact head on as to whether or not we should be consuming yoga mats. They argued various points, but never the actual content of your work. It blew me away. How could it ever be bad to reduce the chemical burden of our food?
Vani: Right. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re winning in this food revolution.
Also, anyone who writes an article or book to try to prevent people from knowing this information knows what they’re doing. They’re attacking the messenger, so this information doesn’t get out. They can’t afford for it to get out because if people know the truth about how many chemicals they’re actually consuming in processed food and in the production of our food, they’re going to be in an uproar. If people actually knew how much we’re consuming, we’d all be outside picketing the government and demanding better. The problem is, not enough people know about it, and we have a long way to go.
What is so beautiful about being where I am in this moment in time is when a lot of these articles and other things were first being written, I was having a hard time dealing with it. I’ll tell you why. You can call me naïve, but I thought if I could share this truth and get these companies to change for the better, everyone is going to love me and be fine. Things are going to be great! I’m going to live happily ever after! I never thought hired PR hit agents would be coming after my name, controlling my Wikipedia page, controlling every mainstream media article comments’ section, trying to do whatever they can to prevent any type of positive reaction from the work I’m doing.
Early on, when I was working on Subway and Kraft, I didn’t get a lot of hit pieces because I was new on the scene. People hadn’t heard of me and thought it was awesome. As soon as I started making companies change, one after another, I was seen as a threat. So, the PR companies have hired “independent scientists” from these universities to attack me. They’ve hired people to write hit pieces on me. They actually place these type of pieces based on the industry that’s funding them. For instance, I just found out through the Freedom of Information Request Act that the flavor industry was looking for people to write hit pieces on my work. I am a huge proponent of reducing the amount of artificial flavors, natural flavors and added flavors the food industry puts in our food to make us think we’re eating the best possible real food when we’re eating junk food. So, they hate me for that. Monsanto has sent emails to various people. I have proof that their PR firm, Ketchum, led sections in Paris on “how to deal with Food Babe and her following of people”. So, I now have so much information on who these people are and why they’re doing this. They’re getting paid by the food and chemical industries to do this.
It makes so much sense because anyone in their right mind who looks at the data and the food we’re eating, can ask the simple question: Is it there to improve the nutritional profile of my body, or is it there to improve the bottom line of the food industry? You’ll say 9 times out of 10, “That ingredient is there to improve the bottom line of the food industry.” Who wants to put that ingredient in their body when it’s never been tested by the FDA, but only by the food companies themselves? Are you going to trust the food companies with your body? All the people dying of diabetes, heart disease and cancer in this country…this is where we are, and we are in a dire health crisis. I’m dealing with my own family at the moment. It gives me the courage and makes me brave enough to share this information because so many people need it.
Dr. C: There is a fundamental premise in place behind our food system. In the legal system, we talk of being innocent until proven guilty. That makes sense, but in terms of weird, non-food chemicals, that doesn’t make sense. The most logical premise would be, “Hey, this is something humans haven’t been consuming for long periods of time, so we don’t know for absolute certainty it is safe. Maybe we should be cautious.” The approach to date has been the exact opposite: “If there’s no smoking gun that’s dangerous, then it must be fine.”
Vani: It’s going to kill a lot of people before the FDA does anything about it. I’ll give you a perfect example: trans fats. Trans fats link to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths per year. It’s still in our food supplies everywhere. The FDA is just getting around to regulating it. They say they’re going to ban it, but they’re giving the food companies many years to ban it. It’s still being used in restaurants everywhere as frying oil and in other goods, liked baked goods. This is an ingredient that is actually killing people. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says it is killing people, yet it’s still in our food. There’s a problem with that!
Dr. C: We’ve known that for 30 or more years.
Vani: That’s another problem, right?
Dr. C: If you had a magic wand and could shift one thing in 2016, what would it be? While you’re thinking about that, let me just say to the listeners: We have a Food Babe army. From hearing about these PR hit firms, I think we need to make a Food Babe Counterterrorism Department!
Vani: You know what? The Food Babe community has been so amazing. They call off the trolls like you wouldn’t believe. It’s really cool to watch. They’ll say “Troll alert. Don’t even waste your time on these people.” So, it’s been really great. I try to educate them, too, on what’s been happening. A lot of people take these articles for face value and don’t see who they’re written by or why they’re there. They don’t look at the interests behind them. You’re even seeing that now. There’s a GMO article that just came out that talks about how GMO’s are completely safe. Well, the organization that produced that report is getting paid by the chemical industry. There is a lot of information that needs to be exposed about how information gets disseminated to the media. We need to learn how to tell if this information is geared toward special interests or if it’s true information.
Dr. C: So, what would you like to see shift in 2016?
Vani: There are a couple things. One has nothing to do with food but does have a lot to do with food. It is to ban pharmaceutical ads. They’re everywhere: magazines, television, etc. If we could ban those ads, it’d go really well.
The other thing would be to re-engineer school food. It’s a topic many people have asked me to deeply take on, but until I have children, I think I won’t be tackling it. When I’ve had lunch with my friends who are principals and teachers, and when I volunteer at schools, I see it all the time. It’s one thing that drives me absolutely bonkers. It almost feels like it is too big to handle, even though it looks like I’ve handled some big things. If I had a magic wand, I’d want to fix school food.
A more realistic goal for 2016, if we focus enough on it and people listen, is ingredient transparency: Everything from GMO labeling to all fast food chains, all restaurants and all food packaging should be required to have ingredients listed, including beer, alcohol and wine. It’s something that’s not required right now, which is completely ludicrous. We don’t know, if we drink alcohol, what’s in it. So, ingredient transparency is really important.
Dr. C: I came from a farm family. There was a time my father worked for a grain processing company in northern Minnesota. These people were the least health-conscious people, but none of them would ever touch bread because they knew all the random chemicals that are used to process the grain that are never part of the ingredient list. There are dyes, formaldehyde and all the preservatives. These people were handling all this toxic stuff during the grain processing, but none of them were listed in the ingredients. Consequently, these guys would never touch bread.
You talked about some goals being more realistic than others. I want to ask, if you look back to 2010, then recount the things you’ve done in the last few years, would you have thought those were realistic back in 2010?
Vani: No. Not at all. Not at all.
Dr. C: I wouldn’t worry too much about the realistic part!
Vani: Whenever I get scared or fearful, I try to think bigger. If I want to take something on, I think, How can I go even bigger? That is the gauge I use when I do my work. So, maybe this school food thing is on the horizon because what’s happening in the schools is really horrendous!
Dr. C: There’s one message about the pharmaceuticals I’m not sure if you’ve heard before. There’s this concept of how consistently a treatment works. We call this “NNT”. For example, let’s say an antibiotic for strep throat works every time. One person is treated, and there’s one outcome, so NNT is 1. Let’s say this same medicine only works one time out of a 100, then the NNT is 100. Where the emperor has no clothes in the pharmaceutical world is all the medications for chronic disease (for cholesterol, blood pressure, bone density issues and blood sugar, in some cases). These medications lower the marker of the chronic disease, but the effect on the corresponding outcome, such as heart attack, amputation, kidney failure or stroke, is close to nothing. The most powerful of all medicines for chronic disease are blood pressure medicines. In the very best of circumstances, the successful NNT for stroke reduction is about 40. So, say you have 80 people with high blood pressure and put them in two groups. You treat one group and ignore the other group. The group on meds will see one less stroke than the untreated group. That is by far the most successful of all those treatments. Most treatments are in the 100-300 range for the NNT.
I’ll forward an article I wrote, called “Hall Pass or Lottery Ticket”. You think of these medications as a hall pass, and you’re safe. They’re lottery tickets. They’re helping in a very small way statistically, and it’s usually 1 out of 100 out of every few hundred. Those on these chronic medications may think, along with their doctor, it’d be great if they would eat well, get off all processed foods and take care of themselves, but they think since they’re on the medications, they’re safe. They think they’re protected, but they’re not. It’s a huge disconnect we have out there.
Vani: Wow, that’s huge. I’d love to read that article.
Dr. C: Your third goal of ingredient transparency is awesome. So much goes on behind processing of foods. The ingredients added intentionally should be disclosed, but also the ones that are used in processing and curing. High fructose corn syrup is full of mercury. It’s not a matter of being an additive, per se, but it’s the use of it in the processing that is an issue. There are a lot of hidden things we should be more aware of.
Foodbabe.com is easy to find. Everyone can find you there. Do you have any events coming up or anything people can be looking for who want to connect with you?
Vani: Well, my book, THE FOOD BABE WAY, was just republished in paperback in March.
Dr. C: If anyone hasn’t read the book, it’s a wonderful read. Your story is fascinating, and there’s a lot more depth about your life and the transition in it. There are photos of you early on when you looked different, and it’s compelling. The science is great, and the recipes are good. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it.
Vani: It was also published in Spanish, and I’ll be going to Spain to do a little book tour, which is exciting. I’m working on my second book, which is also really exciting. I have a couple programs online if people wish to have meal plans or additional helps with creating menus for their family. One is geared toward everyday-type foods. It’s called the “Eating Guide” program. I have a sugar detox program if you have trouble with sugar. I have a seven-day plan around that, along with lasting resources you can use for a lifetime.
Dr. C: That’s awesome. I’ll be sure to provide links for those, as they’re incredible.
[Get Vani’s food guides HERE by signing up for her newsletter]
Vani, this has been a real treat for our listeners and for me. Thank you so much for your time and keep on with what you’re doing. We’ll be adding to the Food Babe army and building the Food Babe Counterterrorism Division. We need Food Babe Special Forces, too, I think. That can be the professional division.
Vani: You’re the captain!
Dr. C: Okay, I’ll be the captain. Thanks so much!
Vani: Thank you!