Vani Hari And The Food Revolution
An interview with The Food Babe by Spirit of Change publisher Carol Bedrosian
For better or for worse, social media has changed the way the world communicates. From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter to corporate pushback against LGBT discrimination, social media has proved itself to be the undisputed champion in mobilizing social change by harnessing the collective power of millions of individuals.
Vani Hari, also known as The Food Babe, discovered first hand the extraordinary power of social media when she launched her blog foodbabe.com in 2011 to educate others about the hidden toxins in our food. While her own passion about the topic inspired her to contact food company CEOs to ask them to change their product formulations, she never expected that her blogging about it and urging others to do the same would galvanize a consumer food revolution, but it has.
Through her national bestselling book, The Food Babe Way, and blog, a virtual army of consumers is being empowered to take back their health and hold food corporations accountable for their actions, including Kraft, Chick-Fil-A, General Mills and many more. Vani was named one of the Most Influential People On The Internet by Time magazine and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and Good Morning America, among others, and is a regular food expert on CNN. Meet The Food Babe November 12, 2016 at the Natural Living Expo in Marlboro, MA.
Carol Bedrosian: How did you get involved in food activism?
Vani Hari: I grew up on the standard American diet. I had two immigrant Indian parents that came here knowing nothing about the American food system. They were used to their mothers making everything from scratch, using ingredients from the garden, whole fruits and vegetables, lots of spices, little to no meat, dairy that came from the cow that the village shared, and that ate off the land. They were used to a very different lifestyle back in India.
When they came here they really wanted to adopt the American lifestyle and fit in because of all the opportunities here in America, so they let me and my brother eat basically whatever we wanted — junk food. Because that food was very cheap and my parents were both struggling teachers, they let us eat that food as much as possible; it was cheap, readily available and it was what the other kids on the block were eating and I really wanted to fit in.
As a result I had a lot of health issues as a child that I thought were genetic because my brother also had them — eczema, asthma, allergies. It wasn't until my early twenties when I hit rock bottom and gained a lot of weight while in a very stressful job, that I really started to explore this idea that what I was eating actually could be causing all of these health issues in my body. I was in and out of doctor’s offices for most of my life and when we went and saw the doctors they would say, “Here's a prescription drug.” They never asked me about what I was eating.
So I started to channel this energy into figuring out how to take back control of my health. I had become fed up. During high school when I was a debater, I learned how to research. Back then we didn't have Google, so you had to go to actual libraries and law libraries and photocopy evidence and look at the microfiche and look through all these really big journals and periodicals and dig deep to find evidence for your case.
One year's debate topic was health care and I remember realizing how screwed up the health care system was because what we really had was sick care in this country, not preventive health care. I used all that information in high school to win debate rounds but I didn't really use it towards my own health. So when I went through this crisis in my early twenties, I started to remember that there is a different way to take care of my health. The first thing I did was go to the library and research nutrition and check out the biggest, baddest books I could find on the topic.
One of the books that I came across was Gabriel Cousens' Spiritual Nutrition, and then another of his books called Conscious Eating. These became my bible in terms of how to eat. He is the first one that introduced me to the concept that the majority of the food I had been eating for most of my life was dead food, completely void of nutrition.
Once I discovered that, I started to investigate what I actually had been eating. What are all these different chemicals that make up the hundred-ingredient sandwich at Chick-Fil-A or the nineteen or so ingredients in McDonald's french fries? What are those chemicals and what are they doing to the body? When I started to research that just for my own curiosity, I was shocked. I found out the FDA had not reviewed many of these chemicals. They had no studies on the majority of these chemicals, that 3,000 of the 10,000 additives that have been approved over the last 50 years have never actually been reviewed by the FDA, that many of these chemicals were banned all over the globe, such as in Europe and in other places where they have a precautionary principle in looking out for the safety of their citizens before profits, unlike we do here in America. All this was so maddening, I found I couldn't shut up about the things I was learning about the American food system.
At the same time my body and my health started to do a dramatic 180. I went from someone on eight prescription drugs to zero, completely lost all of the weight I had gained, and was able to maintain my weight year after year without dieting. My skin completely cleared up, I had no asthma anymore, I started to achieve a level of athleticism I never had before in my life. I started to have energy that I never thought was possible and more energy than I had when I was a kid.
My friends, family and coworkers saw these changes happening and they said, “I want a piece of what you're having. I want to know what you are doing.” So they started to ask a lot of questions and I started to share and eventually they convinced me to start a blog. That's how foodbabe.com was born in 2011. Two of my family members became very sick. My mother-in-law actually died of ovarian cancer less than a year before I started the blog and my dad also got diagnosed with cancer. It propelled me to be more passionate about sharing this information because at this point I had decided to eat preventively to prevent any of these skin issues or the asthma from returning and also to avoid health issues in the future. Because I felt so great, I never wanted to feel again the way I used to feel and I knew there was a better way for so many others out there.
Carol Bedrosian: So when did it turn from your personal health interest to contacting major food corporations to get them to change their policies and their ingredients?
Vani Hari: As soon as I started blogging, I realized there is a community of people out there that were as outraged as I was and I started to build this community online through social media. People were saying, “Oh, I felt that way too,” or “I had a hunch this food was labeled healthy, but was not really.” They had been duped the same way that I had and they were stunned at the information that I was uncovering.
For example, what's in Chipotle. Back then, Chipotle wasn't non-GMO. It was full of GMOs and artificial ingredients and preservatives and when I discovered that kind of information for people, they were shocked. So they read and they became a dedicated community of activists who read my blog and also called companies and contacted them. That is something that I could never have predicted. When I outed a local yogurt company in the Southeast that was advertising organic yogurt but then putting all sorts of artificial additives on top of the organic milk that they were using, what happened was so beautiful. So many people contacted the company with such a big response that the CEO contacted me and pulled the marketing.
At that point I was still working in the corporate world, still had a job, and this was just a hobby. This was my passion outside of work. I actually gave up television so I could find time to blog after work. And it was that one moment when the CEO contacted me that I thought, hmmm, this is really powerful and interesting so maybe I should continue to hold these companies accountable for this kind of misleading marketing and also expose what's actually in some of the stuff that we thought was healthy for so long.
One of the most famous blog posts I wrote was “Chemical Filet or Chick-Fil-A.” There are one hundred ingredients in a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich. People never even thought to look at the ingredients in their sandwich. They just thought it was the healthier, safer, cleaner fast food, but they were using the same chemicals and ingredients as McDonald's.
Many people were very upset when they found this out and it sparked an enormous change by the company. They invited me to their headquarters and hired me as a consultant to teach them about what consumers want and what was most important to us. I told them the most important thing is to have meat not raised with antibiotics because it can create superbugs in the environment and can, frankly, wipe out the human race. And they did it. A year and a half later they made a commitment to do that and they're one of the only fast food chains that's made such a dramatic commitment before anybody else.
Carol Bedrosian: What are some of the other companies that you have contacted and worked with who have changed the ingredients in their products?
Vani Hari: There's been dozens now, which is really humbling to say because I couldn't have imagined just starting a blog could change an entire multi-billion dollar industry. Everyone from Kraft to Hershey's to Nestle to Kellogg to General Mills to Starbucks, Anheiser Busch, Miller, Coors — we've touched just about every part of the big food industry with the campaigns and the information that's been shared on foodbabe.com about these very iconic products that Americans have trusted over so many years.
It’s really just sharing the truth about how our food is made, how it's produced and why certain chemicals are there, how they've been invented largely to improve profits, not for any nutritional reason. Knowing this information has really armed consumers with knowledge on how to eat. Consumers are looking for real food now, and you see the surge in the amount of organic and non-GMO foods that are available.
Here’s a really great example of the snowball effect that can happen. When I started a petition against Kraft to remove Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 from their Kraft Macaroni and Cheese product, it sparked a revolution around artificial food dyes. Since that campaign, not only has Kraft removed artificial food dyes that are linked to hyperactivity in children, but they also have inspired other companies to do the same. General Mills is taking it out of their cereals and many of their foods like Fruit By The Foot and Fruit Roll Ups. Kellogg's is removing it from their cereals. You've got Hershey's and Nestle and Mars. Skittles will no longer be artificially dyed.
There's a huge revolution happening. Once consumers become aware about certain ingredients, they start to demand changes across the board and it sparks an awareness that is pretty incredible to watch. Somebody will learn about Yellow #5 in Macaroni and Cheese and say, “Well I found Yellow #5 in my Doritos that I give my kids in their lunchbox. I don't want to give that to them anymore.” That sparks change.
Carol Bedrosian: What do you think of the new federal GMO labeling law?
Vani Hari: It's a complete sham and it just shows how corrupt our Congress and our lawmakers are. But what's important to realize is that this new law that's probably going to be enacted will only require companies to use a QR code or a 1-800 number, instead of actually on package labeling like they do in so many other countries. It discriminates against minorities and under privileged people because you have to have a smart phone to know what's in your food. That's not democracy.
But what it also is going to do, is it's going to backfire on companies that decide to use QR codes or these 1-800 numbers. When consumers see a QR code or a 1-800 number, they will know automatically that these companies are using GMOs and they're also trying to hide them, so they shouldn't trust these companies. There's a lot of distrust happening in the food industry so it doesn't help that they've lobbied Congress for these very sneak kind of compromise measures that have now been passed in the Senate. It's not going to help overall consumer trust. They need to know that in order for us to continue to buy their products, we have to trust the food companies. These are our bodies, this is the food that we are feeding our families and if they are going to hide the fact that they are using genetically engineered ingredients, consumers will not trust them. It's up to us activists to continue to educate consumers about these kind of shady practices in the food industry. Food is universal to our survival.