Chemical crusade: How the Food Babe ignores the real problem with American health

You can live to be a hundred, if you give up everything that makes you want to live to be a hundred.

-Woody Allen

Last year I wrote about an author/blogger called The Food Babe who boasts a following of three million or more. She’s on a mission, she says, to find out what’s really in your food — and help you regain your health in the process. Since I wrote about her last the Food Babe has apparently published a book (on Amazon at this link). She warns her readers the chemicals and GMO ingredients in their food are damaging their health. I think her blog is interesting because it represents a popular trend in modern culture — suspicion of all things artificial and a yearning for all things “natural”, whatever that word may actually mean.

I agree with Food Babe when she says the modern American diet and lifestyle are unhealthy; we’ve all heard more statistics than we probably wanted to hear on America’s obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, her focus on chemical additives, “natural” vs. artificial and GMO crops is a useless distraction from the real problem. Her approach is popular, however, because the real problem with American health is extremely difficult to solve (I’ll explain why in a minute).

Consider GMO crops for example. Food Babe to the contrary, there’s abundant evidence to show the GMO crops we currently have on the market are perfectly safe to eat. Or consider some of the chemical additives the Food Babe decries, chemicals like potassium sorbate and food coloring. These like many of the chemicals the Food Babe targets have been extensively studied and there’s abundant evidence they’re safe at the levels present in our food. We could get rid of GMOs and chemical additives in our diet and while we might make the Food Babe happy we’d be no healthier than before — because GMOs and chemical additives aren’t the problem. The real problem is obvious, and we’ve known all about it all along. We just don’t know what to do about it. It boils down to this:

The average American doesn’t get enough exercise, doesn’t eat enough fiber or vegetables and eats too much sugar-rich, fat-rich food.

See, you already knew that, didn’t you? It’s fracking obvious. Switching from a diet of fried chicken and fries to a diet of organic, “chemical free” fried chicken and organic fries won’t make any difference, because the whole problem is we’re eating too much fried chicken and fries in the first place. But the Food Babe’s misguided crusade against chemicals is popular precisely because adopting a healthy lifestyle is a lot tougher than banning chemical additives in food. Our evolutionary history and our culture conspire to make a healthy lifestyle difficult to achieve.

Consider the American Cancer Society’s lifestyle recommendations. They suggest eating a diet centered on plant-based foods, limiting your intake of red meat and processed meat, eating lots of whole grains and fruits and vegetables and getting regular exercise. The American Heart Association’s dietary recommendations are similar, although on their list of things to avoid they also add sugar-rich foods. You’ll notice there’s no mention on these lists of chemical additives, GMOs or organic foods because those are frankly irrelevant — whether your food does or does not contain GMOs probably has very little relevance to your health. There is no solid evidence that I am aware of to show organic foods are any more nutritious than the cheaper equivalent, BTW, so as long as you’re eating your veggies whether they’re organic or not probably makes very little difference.

Now, following these recommendations doesn’t guarantee we won’t get sick. There are plenty of environmental factors at play, not to mention what kind of genes you inherited. All the best available evidence, however, suggests adopting this kind of lifestyle will substantially reduce our risk of diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease. These recommendations are based on numerous studies across the years. So why aren’t we following them? Because it’s a lot tougher than it sounds.

Famine was a recurring problem throughout human history going all the way back to hunter-gatherer days. Our ancestors (like most mammals) evolved to crave sugar-rich, fat-rich foods because you needed that stored energy to keep you alive through the upcoming winter. People who craved sugar-rich, fat-rich foods when they could get them stayed alive long enough to have kids; folks who preferred eating brussel sprouts in moderation probably didn’t. Thanks to our evolutionary history, we have a strong built-in craving for meat and dairy and anything rich in sugar and fat and salt (ice cream, pizza, cake, candy, brownies, doughnuts, cheeseburgers, french fries, etc…) But food is now so abundant scarcity is no longer an issue for industrialized nations. The built-in cravings that once helped us survive famines now make us unhealthy, because we keep craving and eating sugar-rich, fat-rich foods we no longer need — forcing our bodies to store the extra fuel in ways that damage our health in the long run. Moreover, that same evolutionary craving for specific flavors makes it challenging for us to eat foods with better nutritional value (whole grains with vegetables both tastes and sounds boring, at least without some kind of sauce).

To make matters worse, our culture encourages us to eat sugar-rich, fat-rich foods. Most of our social events and holidays feature or are organized around food (e.g. turkey day) and cooking is one way we show generosity, however unhelpful that generosity may sometimes be. (Doesn’t it feel sometimes like every time you start trying to eat healthy, one of your coworkers brings doughnuts or fudge brownies to work?) And just you try serving brown rice with steamed broccoli at your next party and see how many people show up.

Exercise? Ah, well, that’s probably the biggest problem of all. Pre-industrialization, most work was manual labor, so just staying alive ensured most folks got all the exercise they could handle. Starting in the 19th century, however, we invented machines to do the manual work for us instead. Now most of us spend our days in offices or labs where the only exercise we get is a periodic trip to the coffee machine. To get exercise we have to sacrifice precious free time outside of work (and if you have kids, you probably didn’t have that much free time anyway).

How do we overcome the evolutionary cravings that make us eat more sugar and fat than we need — and the social structure that ensures we don’t get enough exercise to work those calories off? Damned if I know. I mean, I like to think I live a somewhat healthy lifestyle, but not as healthy as it could be, sure I work out and I’m thin but I still eat too much pizza, dammit, so if you’re asking me how to ensure everybody in America does all the time what I only do some of the time — I have no idea. Maybe put a tax on sugar and pizza and fried foods? Just kidding, I don’t think that’s the kind of campaign promise that will get you elected. But I know what won’t help, and that’s chasing after targets that have nothing to do with the real problem.

The Food Babe and chemical crusaders like her are popular because they offer an easy fix that solves nothing. She promotes organic foods, even though there’s no evidence those are more nutritious (and plenty of evidence they take more land to produce, with some exceptions). She’s obsessed with GMOs, even though there’s abundant evidence the ones currently on the market are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts. She promotes “natural” foods and a “natural” lifestyle as a cure for what ails us, even though this is basically meaningless. Few of the foods we eat are natural to begin with — they’re the product of thousands of years of selective breeding by human hunters and farmers. And what does a “natural” lifestyle look like? Our hunter gatherer ancestors lacked antibiotics and birth control and had a life expectancy in the early 30s. If that’s natural, count me out. And she’s constantly fighting to ban various chemical additives, even though most of the chemical additives she’s targeting are reasonably harmless.

To be fair, Food Babe and her ilk may be achieving some good indirectly by forcing food manufacturers and restaurants to be more open and transparent about their ingredients and processes, and hey, that’s a good thing, but it’s also harmful in that she’s basically a distraction from what I think is our real challenge. Most of the time she doesn’t seem to know or care much about the evidence pro or con; the fact that something is “artificial” is enough to damn it in her eyes. The fact that she regards vaccines with suspicion is testament to how little she knows or cares about medical science. It’s sort of sad she isn’t serving her three million followers more evidence-based information and health advice. I’ve said it before, but again…if she really wanted to write a blog about the science of what’s in your food, there’s a lot more cool information she could share and a lot more she could do.

17 thoughts on “Chemical crusade: How the Food Babe ignores the real problem with American health

  1. Who is funding American Cancer Society? Can we trust all that comes from there. Or is it polished and refined to keep the feedin hands happy? I just wonder.
    Please comment.

    • It’s not a matter of trusting them really. You can go to PubMed or Google Scholar and look up published data and reviews on, say, red meat and colon cancer risk, smoked meat and colon cancer risk etc. and you’ll find their recommendations are all based on correlations from previously published data. Now that’s not to say all of this is undisputed, but there is at least data to back up what they are arguing (which is more than I can say for many of the claims the Food Babe makes).

  2. Completely agree with you but there actually was a study showing nutrient density of organic foods being higher than the cheaper alternatives. I would guess that this is because more of the crop dies and is recycled into the soil and/ or the organic farmers rotate crops more. This is by no means a selling point for organic, just something to keep in mind when someone brings it up claiming organic is superior.
    Love your posts,
    Alex

  3. I will agree with most of this, but I think one thing the Food Babe is doing is exposing that we really need to look at the ingredients in the food we buy. Lots of people (my wife being one of them) think that just because something is on the supermarket shelf that it must be OK, you know the FDA wouldn’t let it be sold if it were bad. To top that off many less than honest companies package their products to give the appearance that they are actually healthy when they are not….so I will take the good with the bad when it comes to the Food Babe. Also I LOVE the organic food wave not so much for personal health but for more political reasons.

    • Yeah, I agree if she’s forcing food manufacturers and suppliers to be more careful about their marketing practices that’s probably a good thing. It is sort of crazy how many products at the supermarket are advertised and sold as “natural” which is kind of meaningless and “healthy” when they contain enough sugar and saturated fat to butter your toast).

  4. Woah now, you mean there isn’t just some pill that I can take to make everything better? What about those homeopathic remedies? You mean to say that in order to change my lifestyle I will have to put in hard and continuous work?
    /sarcasm

    I completely agree, that lifestyle is much more of an issue, but as you’ve pointed out that’s not what people want to hear. The societal change that I think would provide the largest and quickest changes would be to switch government subsidies from meat to fruits/veggies. The price of meat is much less than what it actually costs to create it, and the government has subsidized it so that all people could get enough protein. Currently it’s easy for everyone to get enough protein (actually much more than is necessary) and so we should refocus efforts on what people need to eat more of. Imagine that at a grocery store the prices of fresh produce were halved, and the price for meats doubled. As a consumer would you still buy so much meat and so little produce? How to get that pushed through Congress though…easier said than done.

  5. Great article. You make some good points, but you’re missing a few considerations that I can think of.
    In America we have a big problem with rising rates of ADD and ADHD and there has been a strong link suggested in recent studies between these disorders and pesticides in our food supply (http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/features/pesticides-and-adhd-is-there-a-link). There is also a risk with all the hormones in industrialized meats, in growing bodies. It is common these days for girls to get their periods at 8 or 9 – this is a very recent phenomenon and may be linked more to BPA than hormones, but the jury is still out. I can see why moms and dads buy organic with considerations like these.
    Then there is the problem for all of us with the overuse of antibiotics in cattle creating “super bugs”.
    Just to say there are some very real health concerns with industrialized/non-organic farming for crops and animals.
    Also with regard to organic food, some of us have decided we want to support smaller farms rather than enormous industrialized farms that mono crop, degrade the topsoil, and use pesticides that may be wiping out our bee populations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pesticide_toxicity_to_bees).
    As far as GMO’s yes, it seems that they are safe to eat. Other issues arise with regard to GMO’s however, in that for example, the largest producer of GMO’s, Monsanto, “owns” the seeds and requires not only the farmers who purchase the seeds to buy them new every year, but often sues farmers who own neighboring fields when their crops are contaminated because of the seeds drifting with the wind into adjacent fields. In India farmer’s are committing suicide over this: in the US farmers are going bankrupt. Additionally, since GMO’s are created by combining genes between species (not the same as selective breeding), we do not know what larger effects GMO’s will have on the flora and fauna over time.

    • That’s an interesting point about the ADHD. I guess my first question is where this exposure is coming from. The USDA has been collecting data on pesticide residues in various crops and products for a while now (you can find their data and methods at http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/pdp ) and in 2013 for example out of over 9K samples they found no detectable residue in 40% and only 0.23% had pesticide residue at concentrations exceeding the maximum tolerance set by EPA. If there is a correlation between levels of organophosphate breakdown products in urine and incidence of ADHD, though, it would seem to suggest that either a) the EPA tolerance levels are set too high for some pesticides (I don’t know enough about that to comment but from what I know about their usual methodology for setting those limits it seems unlikely but it might be interesting to look into) or b) there is somehow additional exposure to these chemicals taking place. Some organophosphate pesticides (e.g. malathion) are after all used in some pet flea/tick shampoos and other medications, so it’s always possible kids are getting some exposure to organophosphates like malathion from those kinds of products. I wonder in that study you are talking about what kinds of urine concentrations of organophosphate breakdown products we are talking about. I’ll try and find the original paper here sometime.

      Also I can understand why people would be worried about large agribusiness ventures taking up a larger and larger share of the market…but that has nothing to do with the safety of the GMOs currently on the market. It’s a political issue and at least part of it has to do with farming subsidies and regulations. For people who want to fight that trend, I’d imagine probably the best way to support small farms is to shop at farmer’s markets….either that or take some kind of political action (although getting Congress to change anything having to do with farm subsidies won’t be easy).

      • Oh and yeah another point I would make. Organic farming may be more environmentally friendly in the sense it reduces pesticide usage, although as I’ve said before for most (though not all) crops it would take significantly more land because productivity per acre is less. The strange thing to me though is that the organic farming movement is dead set against GMOs, which have great potential to reduce pesticide use. IMHO mixing organic farming techinques with Bt GMO pest-resistant crops is an interesting idea that deserves to be explored. But try getting anyone in the organic farming movement to sign on to that.

      • I also wonder if the EPA is setting tolerances at a level suitable for adult males, not taking into account growing, smaller bodies. That has been a criticism of their work before. Also, it occurs to me that grass yards could be having an effect. The levels for turf pesticides are set for adult males (I heard – would have to look into that to be sure) and they probably don’t test for rolling and playing around in grass, as kids do.

    • You might want to be skeptical of claims that Monsanto obliges its customers to keep buying seeds year after year or that they sue farmers due to pollen drift. These are well known urban myths that have been debunked numerous times. Same with the Indian suicides. The data doesn’t support this narrative at all. As for putting animal genes into plants, there is no reason to think this should necessarily cause problems. Your body can digest proteins from plants as well as animals, and we often eat them both in the same meal without problems. Plants and animals are evolutionarily related anyway, and exchange of DNA between plants and animals occurs even today at low rates. The unintended consequences of agriculture in general are much, much larger.

      • Actually the info about Monsanto suing farmers who save seed to replant the next year is on their website. http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx The pollen drift suits info is not as straightforward and I did see that farmers have some protection from that possibility as of the recent ruling described here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/06/12/190977225/court-to-monsanto-you-said-you-wont-sue-so-you-cant I would have to look into the Indian suicides more closely, but a cursory look says there is something to the claims… http://rt.com/news/206787-monsanto-india-farmers-suicides/ I agree – just taking out wild lands and forest in order to feed our population has had a huge effect on the ecosystems. Don’t know how we are going to get back to “natural” or if that’s even desirable considering the population we have to feed…probably some balance needs to be reached somehow…

      • Perhaps I misunderstood your comment. When you said “requires [farmers] who purchase the seeds to buy them new every year”, I thought you were implying they were forced to purchase seeds each year. I doubt that is true. If you are just saying that customers are not allowed to save seeds from one harvest and use them the following year, that I don’t doubt. That is a common feature of these kinds of contracts, and anyone who violates a clear business contract they have signed ought to expect to get sued. Monsanto is no different than Apple, Motorola, or any other company that protects its intellectual property in this regard. That’s not really a feature of transgenic seeds per se. Nearly all seed makers carry this stipulation, except in countries where farmers can legally re-use seeds due to federal laws, like in India. The wind pollination myth came from a now well known legal case of a farmer named Schmeiser who invented the wind pollination story when he stole seeds (if you look it up, you’ll find lots of info about this) . Although the story is well known, the myth that evil Monsanto sued some poor farmer is still repeated. I had a look at the news story you linked to. It looks a bit speculative and doesn’t present any hard evidence. In fact, there are pretty good data cotton yields went up after introduction of Bt cotton in India, so it is hard to imagine how the association is even possible. Worse still, that story features Vandana Shiva, who makes a living off of selling this narrative (books, DVDs, speaking fees). There has been a great deal of news coverage over her claims that casts a lot of doubt on her story. She seems quite dishonest in her tactics. If you locate a reliable source of updated info on this story, please post a link as I would be curious to know how it develops.

        I agree that going back to “natural” seems difficult at this point. I am not sure most of us would even want to. It would mean most of us have to become farmers, and that is a hard life most people today could not tolerate. Oftentimes people mistakenly associate “natural” with “good” (I believe this blog’s author has written about this previously) but I think in this case I know what you mean.

  6. “Our evolutionary history and our culture conspire to make a healthy lifestyle difficult to achieve.” You did a great job of supporting this view point. Before I even read the rest of your article I felt like your viewpoints and understanding of the issues are the same as mine regarding our evolutionary history. Culturally we are all caught up in the status quo of industrialized nation’s diets. In addition, the infrastructure of how food gets on our plate is geared toward unhealthy diets.

  7. Great post once again. I really admire how well you present the information and state things simply. Hope to read more posts in the future.

  8. I think part of what people react to is the “food fear” you hear in say, the Food Babe’s blog. A lot of bloggers do feed on fear: fear of “GMOs” and “toxins” or whatever. Basically I’d agree our food supply is as healthy as it ever was, probably better.

    But I also know people who say, go to Provance to eat “real” food because it just tastes so darn good. And I agree. In the US we lost, somewhere along the way, the ability to really TASTE our food and go for the more awesome version. Eggs are a good example I grew up on “store bought eggs” but my Grandma complained. “Chickens in America are unhappy! That is why they lay lousy eggs!”. We all laughed. But then I got my own chickens … and sheesh, she was so right. There was simply no comparison. Our eggs are awesome. A simple fried egg becomes a thing of beauty.

    How does that translate into health? It’s a good question. Our taste buds are honed over the millennia to want what is GOOD for us, so my guess is: the good tasting eggs also have more good stuff in them. They certainly make us feel good, satisfied, and we stay healthy.

    I figure our bodies have a really, really good chemistry set, and more neurons dedicated to tasting our food than we have for doing math or science. With a little training we all can tell the difference between a “bleh” egg and an amazing one. Actually when I give people the good eggs, they just say “wow” and ask for more. If you can’t tell the difference between an egg labelled “organic” or not … then there probably isn’t much difference. Often a lot of the “organic thing is in fact hype or marketing (my chickens are NOT organic, technically! Nor “free range”!).

    I’m not sure how to do the science to tell the difference between things like a good egg and a mediocre one. I’m not sure we even have the tools yet. But hopefully we’ll move beyond “fear of GMOs” to “wow, THAT is a good meal”.

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