Sunday, March 10, 2019

Book Review: Feeding You Lies by "The Food Babe" Vani Hari


Many people say that I should ignore Vani Hari and her new book, Feeding You Lies - How to Unravel the Food Industry's Playbook and Reclaim Your Health. Don’t give her the attention.

However, I’m mentioned prominently throughout the text, portrayed as an industry insider, paid to harass her and derail her efforts to rid the world of molecules with names we can’t pronounce.  On her press junkets she spins wild tales of being a victim, targeted by a concerted effort between me and evil corporations to destroy her credibility. There really was no such thing.

Hari used the Freedom of Information Act to gather tens of thousands of my emails at taxpayer expense—and found nothing.  Zero. But instead of saying that in her book, she manufactured false stories and associations, picking out sentences just to paint me in a negative light. We’ll get back to that.


She certainly goes after me as a paid corporate dupe that is financed to attack her.  I'm actually a public scientist concerned about feeding people and allowing technology to help the food insecure. I despise those that profit from misinformation around food and farming.  We also grow food, lots of it. 


What I Like. I could rightfully be cranky and write a scathing one-star review just to be a vengeful dick, and it would be probably considered appropriate.

But instead I’m going to use this opportunity to be honest in my assessment of her work, and hope that it inspires her to consider higher angels in her endeavors going forward.

First, I didn’t hate the book.  It was an easy read and I was able to pound through it in a four hour flight and a couple of breaks from yard work.  It falls into four clunky non-flowing parts, one which I sorta like. Let’s start there.

In her heart Hari has the same goals and interests that I do, to help guide people to more healthy diets and better health.  When she speaks about the quality of calories, about being aware of processed sugar, about cooking at home—we are on the same page.  We both love a farmers market and believe in eating fresh, local produce. We both note the odd vilification of gluten, and both seem to despise dietary fads, and products that lead with bogus claims and unhealthy weight-loss strategies.

That was one chunk of the book. That part, and the rest of it were generally well written, sort of referenced (selectively omitting anything that didn’t support her position even if it reflected scientific consensus).

Spinning Out.  The book’s agreeable center is flanked by tired conspiratorial nonsense, as Hari gets out yarn, stick pins and a corkboard and constructs tenuous connections between her critics, through circuitous avenues, over hill and dale, across family trees and geological time, to (wait for it) MONSANTO.

Yes, she believes that Monsanto and other companies see her as a threat to their bottom line, so they commissioned a squadron of paid non-company scientists, independent folks like me, to harass her.  
There’s a degree of strange narcissism there.  

What academics and industry scientists actually object to are the strong-armed tactics she used to bully and intimidate to drive irrational, emotional, and unnecessary change.  If the goal is healthier food we should do that through education and objective assessment of risk, not threats and social media smear campaigns against critics and companies. I’ve always been critical of her because I despise abandoning science and evidence and forcing change via fear and misinformation.  That’s exactly what she did, she’s proud of her accomplishments, and she should be criticized for it.  That’s not Monsanto.  That’s objective, scientific criticism.

The sad part is the pettiness of it all.  Her book harvests information from my private emails, such as how I tried to connect with a popular podcast to talk about food and farming. This is not a scandal, it is normal, yet she uses access to my private email to parade my personal business in full light. That’s not what public records requests are for, and she should be admonished for it.

Warped.  I’ll focus on the section about me, since I know that the best. She lists a page of presentations I provided, various events around the country.  She then lists the sponsors of the event, typically companies that help foot the bill and keep registration costs low.  You can read the list (it comes from my website) and see my talks and the companies that sponsored the meeting. She implies that the companies must control what I say, and that I am paid by the companies (she said that on a podcast interview).  However, at most of these I spoke about revising our communication, and if I was paid an honorarium it went to my outreach program to pay for assembling and mailing science fair kits. It is a great example of how she does not ask questions, but is happy to vilify someone innocent to build her crazy perception of conspiracy.


#1 Best Seller in Crop Science.  We're doomed. 

Bad Information. If she was a threat to anything it was a threat to public perception about food safety.  She also threatens the poor in a way she does not realize.  Throughout her book she gives accolades to the Environmental Working Group and praises their “dirty dozen” list. This is the list where pesticide residue amounts are distorted, and risk is manufactured from nothing. 

When you tell people that their fruits and vegetables are poison so only eat organic produce, something horrible happens.  The affluent buy organic fruits and vegetables, which is fine, as I’m glad to see organic farmers cash in on consumer credulity. But many people in of our inner cities and rural areas often have no (or extremely limited) access to fresh fruits and vegetables. When they do have access it is conventional produce, maybe at a Dollar General, convenience mart or small independent grocer.  Selection may be extremely limited, and there certainly is no boutique organic produce.

Someone following Hari’s guidance has a choice between “poison” and nothing.  A true believer acting in the best interests of her family will make precautionary decisions, as the rhetoric of charismatic food activists like Hari scares them away from safe, fresh fruits and vegetables, the foods we should be consuming more frequently.

Pride in "Accomplishments".  She proudly discusses the changes that she inspired in companies, removing ingredients from their products.  She goes down the litany of her coerced successes, yoga matt bread, beaver butts and artificial colors and additives. These stories are nothing new.

The basic theme of the book is that she takes a position, and if anyone criticizes that position they must be a paid stooge of corporate ag. It is an endless romp of six-degrees-of-monsanto, and is tired if not boring.

There are factual errors throughout the book, and lots of disparaging statements about conventional farming and ranching. You can read these at #FoltaReadsHari on Twitter.

Filler. The last 100 pages (of about 300) are a 48-hour detox (which I will not read), an appendix of terms (most people can’t pronounce) and an index.

Synthesis.  Fans of Hari will find little new here.  It is a lot of revisiting her past “successes” and then blaming a corporate cabal for her shortcomings and her decreasing impact.  It is in essence waving a white flag to make gross false associations about others, waste public money for personal gain, and fall on a sword again and again to rehabilitate a well-earned poor scientific reputation and stoke favor with a slim cadre of ravenous supporters.  It is the irony of Feeding You Lies, as time will show that Hari is the one saying, “Open up wide.”


-- and despite what she'll tell you, nobody paid me to do this review. 

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