When Vani Hari began steadily building her Food Babe blog with industry exploits, recipes and nutrition advice, it didn’t take long for her to gain a loyal following. And with a killer digital strategy as well as a universally appealing personal brand, she was a big hit with a specific audience: Young women who desperately want to adopt healthy eating habits. I should know — I am one.

If I believed everything I read on the Internet, there’d be nothing left for me to eat.

Yes, I’ll admit it. I’ve spent countless hours perusing nutrition blogs and news sites, hoping to get some kind of concrete direction: Eat this, don’t eat that. Instead of gaining clarity, though, I became more confused than ever. Cook with coconut oil if you want to slim down. But wait — coconut oil is chock full of saturated fat! Ditch starchy foods, or you’re doomed to get “wheat belly.” Hold on — what about that study that showed a low-carb, high-protein diet puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease? I’m not the only one scratching my head, either — a new study found that one-third of people are perplexed about what a healthy diet means, and 19 percent are unsure about what to do in improving their diet.

The bottom line is this: If I believed everything I read on the Internet, there’d be nothing left for me to eat.

The unchecked power of fear

We want to believe there’s a magic formula, and that’s why sites like Food Babe are able to flourish. The public is hungry for practical health information, so much so that many are willing to overlook questionable credibility (by the way, what credentials are required to label yourself an “expert”?) And it’s because of these half-truths churned out by self-proclaimed nutrition gurus that some of us are willing to pump out hundreds of dollars on the right supplements, cold pressed juices, whatever we can get our hands on in hopes of leading a more nutritionally virtuous life.

A lot of it is semantics. As humans, we naturally have a strong response to messages of warning and danger, especially if they’re actionable: “Avoid gluten!” “Seek out antioxidants to avoid cancer!” This is what Hari capitalizes on: That gap between the nutritional direction we so desperately seek, and the ignorance or gullible nature many of us suffer from.

An NPR story asked, “Is the Food Babe a Fearmonger?” And her blog titles pretty much say it all: A couple of her most popular posts to date are “If You’ve Ever Eaten Pizza Before, This Will Blow Your Mind (Maybe Literally),” and “Coca Cola’s Low Calorie Beverages Will Kill You Before They Solve Obesity.” And the effectiveness of this approach is evident in some of Food Babe’s campaigns, like the one aimed at getting Subway to eliminate azodicarbonamide from its bread. How much do you know about that chemical? Chances are, not much. But Hari knew that to garner support for her effort, all you really needed to hear was that it also happened to be in yoga mats.

Now, does that mean you’re actually eating a rubber sandwich? No, not according to board-certified, licensed nutritionist Monica Reinagel.

“Let’s try to put the image of that blogger tearing a bite off of her yoga mat out of our minds, set aside our irrational chemophobia, and take more level-headed look at this chemical,” she wrote.

In her blog post, Reinagel noted that the purpose of adding this chemical to the flour is to make the dough rise better, resulting in a softer, spongier bread. And while she acknowledged that inhalation of the chemical could potentially pose a small risk, she pointed out that humans don’t even ingest azodicarbonamide, because it’s broken down into other compounds during the mixing process — long before we consume it.

This is just one case that perfectly illustrates Hari’s strategy: She hones in on a scary-sounding chemical, and identifies an alternate use for it that’s bound to horrify health-conscious consumers. It’s clearly effective: She’s managed to pressure a lot of big name food companies into eliminating certain ingredients from their products, along with the support of her so-called Food Babe Army.

Here’s the main issue: While some studies may link a certain chemical or food ingredient to an outcome, that doesn’t prove that it’s the direct cause. This is why the consensus reports used by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Medicine, require scientists to examine all available high-quality research before making make diet or health recommendations to the public.

As Yvette d’Entremont, aka Science Babe, explained on Gawker: “If I told you that a chemical that’s used as a disinfectant, used in industrial laboratory for hydrolysis reactions, and can create a nasty chemical burn is also a common ingredient in salad dressing, would you panic? Be suspicious that the industries were poisoning your children? Think it might cause cancer? Sign a petition to have it removed? What if I told you I was talking about vinegar, otherwise known as acetic acid?”

Another problem is that, well, sometimes Hari gets her chemicals mixed up. Like when she said beer contained propylene glycol (which is also in antifreeze). Dr. David H. Gorski, a surgical oncologist with a degree in chemistry, wrote on Science-Based Medicine that the beer ingredient is in fact the kelp-derived propylene glycol alginate, which is not remotely close to the one she confused it with.

Others have questioned Hari’s claims. A Time Inc. publication published a piece called “5 More ‘Food Babe’ myths you shouldn’t believe,” which aimed to debunk the idea that the microwave destroys nutrients in food and that canola oil is “toxic.” Meanwhile, The New York Times pointed out how Hari has taken down blog posts after they are found to be false. And the Los Angeles Times has called the Food Babe “a new face in the pseudoscience game.” But it was  d’Entremont’s bluntly titled Gawker article, “The ‘Food Babe’ Blogger Is Full of Sh*t,” that seemed to bring about the tipping point. In it, the Boston-bred chemist, also known by her blogger moniker SciBabe, tore apart some of Hari’s pseudoscientific arguments about the sugar content in Starbucks Pumpkin Spiced Lattes and GMOs in Girl Scout Cookies, among other things.

Re-harnessing our hesitancy

The Food Babe launches her investigations on huge brands to make her readers feel informed – and her ultra-shareable, shock-inducing headlines (like “Do You Eat Beaver Butt?” on a post about what’s in natural flavorings) definitely help in getting readers on board. Over the years, Hari has amassed 87,500 Twitter followers, 942,000 Facebook followers, and Time magazine named her one of the “30 Most Influential People on the Internet.” Meanwhile, she snagged a book deal, major media profiles and TV appearances. It’s a lot of power for one person, who so many people clearly look up to as a nutritional advisor. But is she using that influence for the best of our society?

Indeed, we consumers do have a lot of power. But unfortunately, we are sometimes misguided in just how to wield it in our best interests. 

“Hari isn’t campaigning for people to eat more fresh foods,” d’Entremont told me in an email interview. “She’s campaigning for companies that make processed foods to remove one ingredient that she can sensationalize as ‘toxic.’ … If she were a health advocate, she wouldn’t be advocating for removal of one ingredient at a time from powdered cheese and pasta and 400 calorie caffeinated milkshakes. She would be advocating for more accessible fresh produce, but that doesn’t make headlines though, does it?”

Hari counts Kraft’s announcement that it would be removing synthetic dyes and preservatives from its beloved Macaroni & Cheese by 2016 as her most recent victory. According to the Food Babe herself, this decision is a response to her Change.org petition, which she launched in March 2013 and got more than 350,000 signatures.

At face value, it seems like a positive feat (though d’Entremont pointed out in an interview for the Washington Post that parents have already been complaining that their children are allergic to the replacement non-synthetic dyes). While Kraft spokeswoman Lynne Galia said that the company began working on this change a year before Hari’s campaign, the Food Babe maintains that her efforts are responsible for the decision.

“Kraft is in denial of the power consumers have when they come together,” she wrote in an email, according to USA Today.

Industries funding the research used to shape the USDA food pyramid, for example, will have an influence on these recommendations. That means we must always ask in regards to nutritional guidance, ‘who paid for this?’

Indeed, we consumers do have a lot of power. But unfortunately, we are sometimes misguided in just how to wield it in our best interests. In his book, “Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating,” Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health points out that nutrition research for governing bodies is often in direct conflict with the agricultural industry and its stake in the economy. Industries funding the research used to shape the USDA food pyramid, for example, will have an influence on these recommendations. That means we must always ask in regards to nutritional guidance, “who paid for this?” If there’s one thing Hari got right, it’s that perhaps we should be scared about how little knowledge we have on what we’re told is OK to eat. But does that mean we should put stock in what a random blogger with a computer science degree says about nutrition, especially when she has no educational understanding of chemistry or food science? Probably not.

So what philosophies can you trust in trying to lead a healthy life? As unsexy as it sounds, the truth is that most of the guidance you can rely on you probably already know: Cook your own meals, eat whole foods over processed ones, and most importantly, never assume what works for others is right for you (looking at you, gluten-free imposters). My advice to you is this: remain curious. Be open-minded as new evidence emerges. Always keep your BS detector on, and seek out multiple trustworthy resources before you buy into a certain belief. Also, be prepared for conflicting data on certain topics — and if you find it, know that the subject simply hasn’t been settled yet.

Featured image of Vani Hari “Vani Hari from Charlotte Video Project” by Charlotte Video Project – Cropped screen capture from YouTube. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.