Q&A with Vani Hari
(The Food Babe)
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.
We at NaturalPath wanted to get a closer look at the woman who was flipping the food industry on it’s head, so we reached out and Vani Hari graciously agreed to sit down and answer some questions regarding her success in creating real change in the processed food industry. Vani Hari (the food babe) discusses the relationship between what we eat and how we are affected by the toxic burden we face every time we sit down for dinner.
1. Tell us about your personal journey in becoming the “Food Babe”
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. How long have you been on this journey?
It’s been over 10 years now since I had my wake-up call.
3. What was the impetus and motivation for the online campaign specifically against dangers of dyes utilized in Kraft macaroni and cheese?
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. Kraft was doing this to avoid a warning label that is required in Europe when artificial food dyes are used. This double standard was so appalling, I started a petition.
After receiving over 350,000 signatures and leading a strong 7 month campaign, Kraft announced that they would start to remove artificial food dyes from some Mac & Cheese varieties marketed to children. Finally last month (2 years after I launched the petition, and over 365,000 signatures later) Kraft announced that they will remove all artificial food dye from every kind of their Mac & Cheese by 2016.
4. What are the dangers of dyes utilized in Kraft macaroni and cheese?
These are artificial dyes, man-made in a lab with chemicals derived from petroleum. According the The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 can be contaminated with known carcinogens and may cause an increase in hyperactivity in children. That’s why foods with these dyes require a warning label in other countries outside the U.S. that states “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” and have been banned in countries like Norway and Austria. It’s important to note that in America these dyes are being consumed at an alarming rate! A recent Purdue University study shows the extreme amounts of dyes being used in everyday foods here in the U.S now vs. when they were approved for use. They believe that with a combination of foods, kids “could easily consume 100 mg of dyes in a day”, which is well over the amount shown to cause reactions. Scientists have petitioned the FDA to ban these dyes in the U.S. for years, but the FDA hasn’t taken any action.
5. How was the campaign executed? How do you leverage social media, foodbabe.com, and other digital platforms to support your cause?
In March 2013, I launched a petition on change.org. The petition was a huge success and gained a lot of media exposure within days. I kept the momentum going by sharing the petition with as many people as I could and wrote several blog posts about it’s progress.
When I went to Chicago to personally deliver 270,000 signed petitions to Kraft’s door, I had no scheduled meeting with them. Although I had tried to schedule a meeting, they had ignored my requests. A few hours before heading to the headquarters, I posted a message on Facebook asking fans to call the headquarters on my behalf to ask Kraft to meet with me. I wasn’t the only one who did this, several other food advocates (and personal friends) shared this message with their facebook fans too. I didn’t know at the time, but this tactic ended up being one of the most powerful social media events I have ever witnessed. Reading the comments on facebook was so inspiring, people were put on hold for over 10 minutes and did not give up. Kraft eventually went from ignoring my emails and voicemails to finally deciding to meet. I believe the persistence and calls of supporters that day is what led Kraft to finally agree to sit down with me.
6. What were some obstacles you overcame in the process?
When I finally got in to meet with Kraft in their headquarters to discuss the dyes in their Mac & Cheese, they told me they were not going to change their product and that “we have to agree to disagree”. Initially, they were ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Americans who signed this petition asking them to remove these dyes. I found this to be shameless and unethical, especially considering they knew how to develop a safer product and was currently selling it in other countries with natural colors. I still knew at the time that Kraft would eventually make this change down the road. Companies often say no a few times, before they say yes – especially when their decisions start to hurt their bottom line.
7. How will the elimination of chemical dyes in Kraft mac & cheese affect America going forward?
Millions of families across the United States and Canada will finally get the same safer versions that have been available in Europe for years. The double standard is finally ending for one iconic product and hopefully several more. A million boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese are sold everyday – that’s a lot of artificial food dye finally being eliminated from the North American food supply. We have a lot more work to do in this area but we are making some serious progress. The awareness alone created a movement for safer ingredients – people everywhere are reading ingredient lists and avoiding artificial food dyes in other products. Also – many other companies are paying attention and removing these unnecessary dyes from their food.
8. What are the next steps in this campaign?
I hope Kraft’s decision to remove these artificial food dyes from Mac & Cheese continues throughout their entire product line including JELLO, Kool Aid and across the industry.
9. Who inspires you to continue your quest for a healthier world?
I often refer to myself as an accidental activist because I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be one. I just wanted to feel better, I was tired of being sick all the time and wanted to take back control of my health. Once I began investigating what was in my food and uncovering the truth about the food I had been eating I knew I had to share what I had learned. The information I uncovered was so important that I had to speak out. This is how I became an activist, by continuing to use my voice to speak up about the information I felt needed to be shared.
I am inspired by the work of great activists that have come before me and am also inspired by the ability that everyone has to be an activist. Every time you purchase food, tell a friend something new you learned about food, sign a petition, read an ingredient list or contact a company directly, you are taking an act which makes you an activist. Together, with the power of our collective voices we are shaping the marketplace and creating a new demand for real food.
10. What other campaigns are on the horizon?
Change is happening and I’m seeing a lot of progress across the industry, as more and more companies are starting to remove artificial and unnecessary additives from their products. Luckily, as FoodBabe.com grows, so does our ability to affect these changes more quickly. Our voices are being heard and we will continue to spread the truth. There are plenty of other food establishments and products I will be focusing on in the future, plenty. This is a movement about transparency in the food system. Everyone deserves to know exactly what they are eating and my job will not be done until we all have this information.
11. How can consumers become empowered to make better decisions in eliminating toxins in their food choices?
I encourage people to get back in their kitchens and cook more food at home. As a country, we have grown accustomed to outsourcing the majority of our meals. We are eating in restaurants, on the go, and consuming food prepared by someone else with a list of ingredients chosen by someone else. People who eat more food prepared in their homes avoid thousands of unnecessary food additives that they would otherwise be exposed to. When I make food at my house it is far more nutritious and tastes way better than anything I can find at a restaurant. I created The Food Babe Membership Program (available on my website) for this reason, to provide my friends and family with an easy plan to follow for making healthy food at home.
12. A main philosophy of naturopathic medicine is First Do No Harm. What would you say to our readers, patients on the NaturalPath to living a health on first steps in avoiding harmful ingredients and toxins in food?
The most important thing someone can do is to start reading ingredient labels and stop looking at the front of packaging for information about the product and its health benefits. Read labels and start to research. In The Food Babe Way I highlight the top 15 sickening ingredients to avoid if you want to lose weight, feel and look years younger. I methodically take someone through the healthy changes they can make to live a more energetic and vibrant life while still being exposed to the food system we have today. I share the life changing habits that have allowed me to maintain my weight for over a decade after losing the extra pounds I had been holding onto for years. After learning to maintain these habits I have never had to diet again, despite the challenging environment we live in with an abundance of tricky marketing and addictive additives in our food that make us eat more than we should.
A big thanks for Vani and everyone at Foodbabe.com for empowering the public to make healthier food choices for their families!