Food Friday: Investigating ‘Food Babe’

Apologies for the lack of posting last week everyone. I was spending some time exploring the US again, this time in New Orleans. I might tell you a bit about it sometime because it was an amazing week.

In the meantime though, this is a bit of a different Food Friday, but something I’ve been itching to write about for a few days. You have probably heard in the news recently that Subway have changed their bread recipe after thousands of signatures on an online petition requesting that they remove the ingredient azodicarbonamide. What you’re less likely to know unless you’ve dug a little deeper (which I’ll admit I hadn’t until just this week) is that the entire great-big-thing was sparked by a post by a blogger who calls herself Food Babe.

Far be it from me to detract from someone who is making an effort to improve our food system and working hard on it – but Food Babe drives me more than a little crazy. I admire what she is trying to do in some instances – for example, she recently convinced Chick-Fil-A to start using antibiotic-free chicken – but so many of her efforts seem to be based on pseudoscience and half truths, combined with some plain old avoidance of facts that don’t suit her agenda. (For a really good run down this exact approach to research in the yoga-mats-in-Subway-bread debacle, I’d suggest this post on the NeuroLogica blog). Her focus on unscientifically backed ‘issues’ like this one with Subway detracts from real issues in our supermarkets and fast-food outlets.

This Subway incident isn’t the first time that she’s engaged in scaremongering based on science that is dubious at best. For example, this from her ‘Don’t Poison Santa‘ sugar cookies post:

‘Don’t poison santa (and yourself) with these cookie brands with terrible ingredients… whether you choose Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Nestle or store brands like Great Value – you can almost be guaranteed they have GMOs linked to infertility, allergies, and cancer, trans fats that cause 8,000 deaths per year and 20,000 heart attacks, aluminum linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and/or very controversial artificial ingredients made from petroleum that are contaminated with carcinogens.’

Let’s just look at that first claim, that GMOs have been linked to ‘infertility, allergies and cancer.’ Really? A quick Google search turns up this paper ‘Genetically modified foods, cancer, and diet: Myths and reality‘ in the peer-reviewed journal, Current Oncology. The authors have this to say about GMO foods and cancer:

Avoiding [genetically modified foods] will neither stop nor prevent carcinogenesis.

and additionally that:

The recent report claiming that [genetically modified foods] are causally associated with cancer development in rats has been debunked by informed opinion: genetically tumour prone rats were used; a spurious construct and research protocol was followed; and the statistical approach used did not satisfy confounding factors. The publication was apparently not subject to satisfactory objective refereeing, and certain tainted financial interests were also operative. All the foregoing factors skewed the results, rendering them invalid and not significant.

For a shorter version of the debunking of the spurious study that suggested that GMOs can cause cancer, here’s a concise piece by Bloomberg.

So that’s cancer. What about allergies?

Well, it seems very unlikely (granted, not absolutely impossible).

A piece in the (again, peer-reviewed) Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology states that:

Few products of agricultural biotechnology (and none of the current products) will involve the transfer of genes from known allergenic sources. Applying such criteria provides reasonable assurance that the newly introduced protein has limited capability to become an allergen.

(I’m sorry I can’t provide the direct link to this one, as I connected to it through my university journal database. If you’re interested, look for ‘Will genetically modified foods be allergenic?’ by Steve L. Taylor and Susan L. Hefle, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 107(5): 765-771.)

Here’s another study, this time in Allergy:

to date […] no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions

In terms of peer-reviewed science, the most strident evidence I could find for avoiding GMOs for allergy reasons was in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition which suggests that:

The introduction of novel proteins into foods such as a GM soybean variety expressing methionine from Brazil nut […] and GE corn variety modified to produce a Bt endotoxin […] may elicit potentially harmful immunological responses including allergic hypersensitivity. moreover, according to Prescott et al. (2005), the introduction of a gene expressing nonallergenic protein such as GM field pea, expressing alpha-amylase inhibitor-1, may not always result in a product without allergenicity

(This is from ‘Health risks of genetically modified foods’ by Artemis Dona and Ioannis S. Arvanitoyannis, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 49(2): 164-175).

Their overall conclusion though? The jury is still out. And to date, there is no proof that GMO foods cause allergies.

But what about GMOs and infertility? Well, Google GMO food and infertility and you’ll receive a barrage of pages claiming a link between the two. Some are relatively well researched sites, others considerably less so (Infowars, anyone?). Run a search through a scientific database though and you’ll get only a handful of results, most of which are not that relevant. I was able to find evidence of a study which found a statistically significant reduction in the size of litters born to mice after being fed GM maize (although I couldn’t find the study itself so I’m relying on a piece in the Daily Mail for that…eek), but that study was subsequently withdrawn by the Austrian government due to poor reporting and incomplete and contradictory data.

Again, I’m going with no conclusive evidence of links between GMOs and infertility. Which leaves, overall, no evidence of any of the health issues that the ‘food babe’ attributes to GMOs.

This is why she makes me mad. Vani Hari (Food Babe’s real name) has an enormous readership and extensive media reach. She’s in the position to make a real change in our food systems. Yet, instead of focusing only on the things that are known, conclusive problems, like transfats, like the use antibiotics in the industrial food system, she spreads herself thin, spouting misinformation about GMOs and azodicarbonamide which makes navigating an already complex and confusing food landscape even more difficult for the layperson. Yes, the best goal is for us to all be able to eat real, fresh, sustainably farmed food, but for those who can’t do that due to time or financial constraints, or lack of education, let’s keep the messages simple and focused on scientifically proven problems.

NB: Please don’t take this post to be an endorsement of GMO foods. I still have huge concerns about them, but these concerns are primarily limited to ones of preservation of genetic diversity, the problems of ‘ownership’ of food (in cases where there are corporate patents) and agricultural sustainability in general. 

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8 thoughts on “Food Friday: Investigating ‘Food Babe’

  1. I, too, have huge concerns about food that’s genetically modified, mainly related to the truth that those who sell us stuff are motivated by profit, not our wellbeing. If they can get away with it, they’ll sell us any old shit.

    PS I heard a good one yesterday. There really is a way to avoid dying from cancer: die from something else first :)

    • I’m certainly not saying that GMO foods are definitely ok. I’m not at all convinced that they are. But spurious arguments like this just complicate the issue further and detract from more rational, scientifically-backed arguments against GMOs. I don’t trust Big Food and Big Ag either!
      Thanks for commenting (as always) :)

      • I hear what you’re saying. As a devil’s advocate thought experiment, though: our entire socioeconomicpolitical system is so badly flawed in so many ways that some folk may conclude that it is legitimate to use any methods at all if they might work in order to achieve an objective they feel to be desirable.

        Case in point: advertisers have no qualms about lying to us to sell their wares.

  2. I love that you wrote this. I feel the same away. All the mis information she dispels is very frustrating yet her public believes and accepts every word without question which is the most alarming.

    Science Corner

  3. Pingback: » 5 posts in 5 days: The Food Babe vs Pumpkin Spiced Lattes

  4. Pingback: » 5 posts in 5 days: The Religion of Food Babe

  5. Pingback: » Operating like the Food Babe: Product referrals, inconsistencies in data and bad science

  6. Pingback: » The Brand of the Food Babe: The potential for harm

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