Just last week The Food Babe Way vaulted Vani Hari into Amazon’s number one perch for most popular author in health, fitness and dining, triggering an tsunami of dissent by the scientific community. A piece in The Atlantic by James Hamblin provides a vehicle for scientists and others to vent their frustration and spout increasingly terse rebuttals to Vani’s personal brand of scientific sabotage–especially in the over 800 comments following the article. With the rhetoric flying, just what is the average consumer to think? Let me take a stab at deciphering the code.
Basically scientists seem outraged that a mere mortal (someone without a PhD) dares to question their authoritative understanding of food safety. Science and research types tend to take things literally, so I appreciate that it rankles to hear someone denigrate all those “chemicals”, when in fact all food is chemical, and indeed everything in our universe is “chemical”. But is the definition of what is or isn’t chemical really the issue? I think not.
While the scientists twitch with every outrageous claim, her faithful followers seem to embrace her even more. Ultimately, the scientific community–from the food industry to government agencies charged with safeguarding the public’s health to the hallowed halls of research universities across the country– will need to reckon with the truth. They have lost the public’s trust.
The public is increasingly suspicious that so many scientists make their way from industry to government regulatory positions and back again. In The Atlantic piece Hamblin states, “22 percent of the scientists charged with making the determinations of what ‘generally regarded as safe’ meant in each case were employees of the company that manufactured the additive in question.” Sometimes the manufacturers were allowed to select the scientists, but not once were the scientists selected by a disinterested third party. None of this inspires confidence in the safety of our food supply.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY…OR NOT
Over the last sixty plus years the food industry has seduced the public to enjoy “better living through chemistry,” and for decades Americans literally drank the KoolAid. Today we suffer from increasingly more disease and disability specifically linked to the food we eat, how our food is grown, and it’s impact on our environment. From the low rumble of Rachel Carson’s warnings in Silent Spring to the full throttled roar of environmentalists and activists today, more of us are pushing back.
Consumers increasingly vote with their dollars, underscoring greater skepticism and distrust of a food system run amok. The food industry is reeling as people look to eat “cleaner” and close to the earth. Enter Vani Hari, leveraging her own experience with food and healing into an extremely marketable message, despite that the science is often distorted, or even entirely missing.
I don’t blame consumers. Food and nutrition science is a young discipline, and honestly we don’t know as much as many experts want us to believe. In addition, some rather remarkable pivots in thinking have occurred during my career. Off the top of my head consider that:
- Secretary of State Butz championed growing more and cheap food in the 1950’s giving rise to decades of investment in Big Ag. The War on Poverty followed, pushing for even greater food to feed the hungry. Today we “enjoy” the cheapest food supply on the planet with too many highly processed and adulterated calories, abominable food waste, and metabolic disease that threatens everyone, but especially the poor.
- Calories still count, but the energy balance equation needs help. Just last week experts writing in the Endocrinology and Diabetes edition of Lancet no longer considered diet and exercise along adequate to treat obesity.
- In the 1980’s fat and cholesterol were enemy number one, yet today we understand that fat does not make you fat and we actually need to eat enough healthy fat. In fact, Science Daily reports that the 2015 USDA Dietary Goals Scientific Advisory Board is recommending that we no longer concern ourselves with over-consuming cholesterol in food.
- Fiber continues to be celebrated to improve gut health, but insight into the microbiome is likely to trump whatever we think we understand about the value of fiber today. It may be that the spotlight on fiber fades a bit in contrast to the role of antibiotics drugs, antimicrobial cleaners, herbicides and other agents that compromise microbes, as well as an increasingly processed and sterile food supply.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
It is clear to me that all of us, scientists and consumers alike, have a lot more to learn. The fact that none of current food additives with GRAS status or the chemicals used in growing our food have been assessed with a eye toward the impact on the microbiome tells me it is time for all the scientific rhetoric to quiet. We simply don’t know what we don’t know.
Instead of insisting that the status quo is fine, I encourage anyone speaking to the science to consider the bigger issues. More and more disease is linked to our contaminated environment, our current food supply, and the increasing body burden of chemicals found in our food. Consumers know when they feel better because they change the way they eat, and they don’t appreciate feeling dismissed.
In the long run, what is the harm of people eating “closer to the earth” and choosing more whole foods that are grown more sustainably? Maybe scientists need to start listening to what consumers are really saying. They are speaking loud and clear.