Vani Hari is a revolutionary food activist, creator of FoodBabe.com, author of the #1 best selling book The Food Babe Way and was named one of the Most Influential People On The Internet by Time Magazine. In her work, Hari has influenced how food giants like Kraft, Subway, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, and Starbucks create their products, steering them towards more healthful policies. Vani teaches people how to make the right purchasing decisions at the grocery store, how to live an organic lifestyle, and how to travel healthfully around the world. The success in her writing and investigative work can be seen in the way food companies react to her uncanny ability to find and expose the truth. She lives in North Carolina and travels around the world to speak about health and food awareness. She is currently planning her next campaign.
1) What prompted you to start investigating the foods Americans consume?
I began my food journey, like most people, by following the standard American diet. As a successful management consultant, I was either in the office eating whatever take-out was available, or I was on the road eating every meal out. Although this lifestyle allowed me to fit in with my peers and work crazy hours, it also took a huge toll on my body and I became very ill.
Over the holiday season over ten years ago, I found myself in a hospital bed. I was sick, overweight, and I was ready to change! I made a personal promise that from that point on that I was going to make health my number one priority. FoodBabe.com was born in April 2011, from my years of learning, investigating and researching how to live a healthy lifestyle in this overly processed world.
As I learned more about the habits needed for a healthy lifestyle and what dangerous ingredients to avoid, my friends and family begged me to start a blog in order to share everything I had uncovered. My first investigation was into my favorite yogurt chain. After the CEO responded to my writings by yanking some of the misleading marketing, I continued writing about the injustices and corrupt practices of the food industry.
Over the past three years, FoodBabe.com has grown to have a readership of over 4 million inspired individuals who are seeking to lead heather lives and rid our food system of deadly ingredients. It is through the help of the entire Food Babe Army that the investigations and petitions on FoodBabe.com have been able to force some of the largest food corporations to change, including Kraft, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Subway, Anheuser-Busch, and Starbucks.
2) For those who are new to the concept of GMOs, what should they know?
In the U.S., our food is missing a very important label — one that President Obama, the FDA and the USDA have made a concerted effort to deny us from having. This label is for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are in 80% of our processed food. GMOs are foods biologically manufactured in laboratories — injected with new DNA, viruses, herbicides, insecticides and/or other chemicals — to be resistant to synthetic chemicals and are completely different than hybridizing techniques allowed by nature.
These foods have only been in our food supply since 1996 and long-term health impacts were not conducted before they were approved. As I mentioned in my recent op-ed in the NY Times, these foods can be labeled “natural” because the FDA has completely been asleep at the wheel. GMOs receive patents by the U.S. Patent Office because they have been deemed to be unique and different. Over 64 countries around the world require GMOs to be labeled or regulated. The U.S. does not.
This is one of the most un-American policies that exist. We have the right to know what’s in our food just like people in countries like China and Russia do — especially when studies have linked GMOs to a wide variety of diseases like infertility and cancer.
3) What do you find most shocking about processed food in America?
I was floored when I discovered that several American food companies are using harmful additives that are not used — and in some cases banned — in other countries. One of those products is an iconic staple that almost every American, me included, has had at one time or another: Kraft Mac & Cheese. I found it hypocritical that Kraft was selling Mac & Cheese overseas with natural dyes paprika and beta carotene (real food) and meanwhile, here they were selling petroleum-based food dyes (yellow #5 and yellow #6 linked to a myriad of health issues) to their fellow Americans.
This double standard made me so angry, I started a petition. After receiving over 350,000 signatures and leading a strong 7 month campaign, Kraft announced that it’s starting to remove artificial food dyes from some Mac & Cheese varieties marketed to children and now has started to make those changes to additional products. It’s alarming that the FDA allowing additives that are banned or restricted in other countries and linked to health risks like azodicarbonamide, BHT, BHA, and parabens.
4) What are the top 5 foods that we should avoid and why?
I highlight the top 15 “sickening ingredients” in my new book The Food Babe Way, but here are 5 to get you started:
- Preservatives – Some common examples are sodium phosphate, nitrates, BHA, BHT and TBHQ. These additives are potentially cancer causing and/or endocrine disruptors. Preservatives are commonly found in cereals, crackers, snack foods, cakes. Try choosing fresh foods that do not have a long shelf life or organic brands that do not use preservatives.
- MSG & hidden MSG additives – Used as a flavor enhancer, MSG is one of the most fattening ingredients that can also cause adverse reactions in some people. Hidden forms of it can be listed as yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed protein, natural flavor or textured protein. It is commonly found in restaurant foods, chips, dips, frozen dinners, salad dressings and soups. This additives makes you eat more than you should – which is why the food industry likes to use it so much!
- Artificial Sweeteners – These may do more harm than good, they may slow down your metabolism and “train” you to crave sweets. Also, the presence of artificial sweeteners in a product doesn’t automatically mean high-calorie sweeteners aren’t present, too. Some food manufacturers use both. Look for aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, erythritol, acesulfame potassium, and acesulfame K on the label. You can also find them under brand names “Nutrasweet,” “Sweet N’ Low,” “Equal” and “Splenda.” They can be found in sodas, candy, yogurt, desserts and many other processed foods. Try and find foods that are sweetened with natural sweeteners like fruit, honey, maple syrup, 100% pure stevia or coconut palm sugar.
- Artificial Trans Fats – These are found in partially hydrogenated oils, an ingredient that the FDA is currently considering to ban. Trans fats can raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, and are a leading cause of heart disease. According to the CDC, they can be linked to 7000 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks! This is another example of why we must learn about the ingredients in our food. They can be found in many shelf stable food items like crackers, cookies, bakery items, doughs, pies and snack foods. Try and choose foods that do not have partially hydrogenated oil listed on the label and that use healthy oils instead like olive oil and coconut oil.
- Artificial Food Dyes – In Europe, a company that decides to use artificial food dyes like Yellow #5 or Red #40 has to apply a warning label on their product that says “May Have An Adverse Effect on Activity and Attention in Children.” Since the FDA approved artificial food dyes, they have increased exponentially in the marketplace – risking our childrens health even more. Food companies use artificial food dyes to make processed food look more appealing and for cosmetic purposes only. They are also linked to skin issues and asthma according to scientists who have reviewed studies at The Environmental Working Group and Center for Science In The Public Interest.
5) Do you see signs that things are moving in the right direction when it comes to safer food ingredients in America?
Change is happening and I’m seeing a lot of progress across the industry, as companies are starting to remove artificial and unnecessary additives from their products. After I petitioned Subway and they removed the additive azodicarbonamide from their bread, Pizza Hut, Bimbo Bakeries, Martin’s Potato Bread, Nature’s Own, Olive Garden, Starbucks, and Publix Grocery Store announced plans to remove the chemical from their products too.
Last year, Panera Bread announced they’re removing all artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, Chipotle is ditching GMOs, and McDonald’s has committed to stop sourcing chicken raised on antibiotics. Chick-fil-A is also going to start serving chicken that wasn’t raised on antibiotics, and Carls Jr. now has a “Natural” burger with grass-fed beef raised without antibiotics or added hormones – although the bun and toppings are still dreadful, it’s a start in the right direction.
6) What are some future ventures you are currently working on?
As for now I am still focusing on spreading the messages and life changing habits I’ve written about in The Food Babe Way. It contains the 21 essential habits that I taught myself to take control of my health. This book is for anyone who is tired of the food industry hijacking their taste buds and wants to take matters in their own hands and become their own food investigator, nutritionist and food activist. We have the power to change our health faster than anyone else and I wrote this book to show people how to do just that.