Activist ‘Food Babe’ Talks Chemicals and Healthy Eating

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Vani Hari. Photo: Sean Busher/Courtesy of Food Babe

For this edition of the Wellness Diaries, the Cut speaks to Vani Hari, a self-described "consumer activist" who blogs about food activism on her blog, Food Babe, and who was recently voted one of Time magazine's "30 Most Influential People on the Internet." In one of her most popular posts to date, titled "If You’ve Ever Eaten Pizza Before, This Will Blow Your Mind (Maybe Literally)," Hari breaks down the hidden MSG in the most popular pizza food chains. She marshals the so-called Food Babe Army, a group of loyal readers, who work together to petition big companies like Subway to remove what she deems "harmful chemicals" from their food. She is also the author of a new book, The Food Babe Way, that's out now. The Cut talks to Hari about her biggest regret and on being called a scaremonger by her critics.

For several years, I’ve started my day with warm lemon water and cayenne pepper. Lemon water is very alkaline and can stimulate the liver. [Editor's Note: Although lemons are acidic, some alternative-medicine supporters believe that once metabolized, they have an alkaline effect on the body.] It can change your taste buds so you don’t crave sugary foods, and instead crave alkaline ones like fruits and vegetables. The cayenne pepper has been proven to boost your metabolism. But both of those ingredients together strengthen the immune system. I’ve gotten fewer colds because of following this habit. An acidic body promotes disease and inflammation. I try to make my diet mostly alkaline. And with water, you want to make sure it’s not contaminated. Unfortunately, our water is contaminated with everything from chlorine to fluoride.

I grew up on a typical processed-food diet — the standard American diet of McDonald's or Burger King a few times a week. My parents didn’t know what was done to the American food supply. They were immigrants from India. At the time, I thought traditional Indian food was weird and different from what other people were eating so I shunned what my mom was cooking. It is my biggest regret.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a health crisis. I had eczema, asthma. I was on several prescription drugs. I thought it was genetic because my brother also had them. I sought to take back control of my health. I started to realize a health and an energy and a focus I didn’t think was possible. I started to excel in life more than I ever thought I would. My friends and family saw this and wanted to know the secrets. So I started the blog Food Babe.

I started by researching food like I was a debater in high school. I went to the library. I read big, thick manuals and just about every food industry and nutrition book to find the healthiest diet. The healthiest diet is closest to natural and one that has not been manipulated by the food industry. I always make sure to have some form of dark leafy greens in every meal. For lunch, I normally have a large salad with a protein like lentils or fish. I’ll do a little piece of dark chocolate with my tea or dark chocolate almonds. For dinner, I cook with my husband, lots of stir-fried vegetables and maybe lentil pasta. I do my best to buy as much produce as possible. I eat organic because I want to avoid soil sludge, which is from sewers and gutters. If you don't go organic, there are synthetic pesticides, which can cause cancers and auto-immune disorders.

There are people who want to keep the chemicals in our food and keep us dependent on chemicals. They’re chemical activists. I am a consumer activist. I think we can empower ourselves with this information. You don’t have to be a nutritionist or scientist to know how to eat. We have the ability to empower ourselves. And the people who are speaking out are saying that we can’t empower ourselves. They assume that we are too stupid to figure this out.

And as for people calling me a scaremonger, unfortunately, a lot of the information we are finding out is scary. Look at the FDA:­ There are now over 10,000 additives. I don’t trust an FDA like that. We should be scared to the point of taking care of ourselves. The people who are calling me a scaremonger are people who are sitting back and allowing these companies to contribute to their bottom line while increasing our waistlines. I want to know why companies aren’t coming up with chemical inventions that are improving our health. And people can’t argue with that.

Powerful interest groups always resist change and try to shoot the messenger. So what else is new?  

This interview has been condensed and edited.