I went to hear Vani Hari, better known by her blog name as the Food Babe, speak at the University of Hawaii on Thursday night to find out more about her food activism.

And there was another reason. A friend told me that pro-GMO groups were trying to sabotage the event by reserving all the tickets on Eventbrite to prevent the Food Babe’s fans from attending. A pro-GMO Facebook group on the mainland had mobilized its followers to make requests for more than 1,500 tickets in an attempt to disrupt the event.

Ashley Lukens, who directs the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, which sponsored the Food Babe’s talk, says that the UH campus security office advised the center to hire more campus security guards for the talk because of the potential for angry outbursts.

The evening had the possibility of high drama, maybe even a food fight. Count me in, I thought.

Vani Hari, better known by her blog name as the Food Babe.
Vani Hari, better known by her blog name as the Food Babe, spoke at the University of Hawaii on Thursday. Courtesy of Vani Hari

The Food Babe is a controversial figure because of the success of her nationwide campaigns to get huge food corporations such as Starbucks and Subway to remove ingredients from their products that she considers unhealthy.

The New York Times has called her “perhaps public enemy number one of big food companies.”

Hari advocates a chemical-free, plant-based diet. She believes genetically engineered crops are making people weaker and sicker.

As it turns out, only a few pro-GMO supporters showed up to hear Hari talk. Among them was Joni Kamiya, the daughter of longtime Windward Oahu farmers known for their Kamiya Gold papayas.

Kamiya says she came not to heckle but to get a better sense of what makes Hari’s followers so dedicated, and, she adds, “so lacking in critical thinking.”

Kamiya writes a pro-GMO blog that outlines the benefits of biotechnology in farming and criticizes opponents.

She says without genetic engineering, the ringspot virus would have wiped out Hawaii’s papaya industry in the 1990s.

Kamiya and her friend, former Dow AgroSciences researcher and now self-employed consultant Sarah Thompson, attended the event wearing “I Love GMO” T-shirts.

Sarah Thompson, left, and Joni Kamiya before the Food Babe’s talk.
Sarah Thompson, left, and Joni Kamiya before the Food Babe’s talk. Courtesy of Sarah Thompson

They got some “stink eye” from the Food Babe fans as they waited for the program to begin in the School of Architecture auditorium, says Kamiya.

Hari was on stage with Kaui Sana of Ma’o Organic Farms and Doorae Shin of Kokua Hawaii Foundation. The topic of the evening was the ethics of eating, with the speakers explaining their personal eating philosophy and how they hope to urge others to eat healthier food.

All three were advocates of locally grown organic foods and opponents of GMOs.

Hari says she grew up in North Carolina shunning the healthy Indian food her immigrant parents cooked in favor of Burger King Whoppers, candy and processed foods. Hari thought that the manufactured foods seemed more American.

“But I never felt well as a child. It kills me that there are still children like me who are feeling this pain. They go to the doctor to get medicine but it turns out so much of the problem is from the food they are eating,” Hari told the audience.

She says after she was hospitalized at 22 with appendicitis she started paying attention to what she was eating. As she became more aware of the chemical additives in her food, she shared the information with her friends who urged her to spread the word to others.

Now Hari has more than a million followers on Facebook and more than 3 million a month on her Food Babe blog run from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Her message is simple and direct, perfectly suited to the short attention spans of many readers today.

The Food Babe blog urges her followers to find out what’s in their food. And if they share her concern about ingredients she’s discovered are harmful in her “investigations,” to team up with her to sign petitions and launch phone campaigns to get the food company to remove the ingredient.

“It is not based on empirical evidence but rather on her emotional beliefs. She has no scientific or nutrition or farming background,” says Kamiya.

This is a criticism echoed by others, such as New York University nutrition and public health professor Marion Nestle.

In an interview with WYNC, Nestle says, “I think the real charge against Vani Hari is that she removes the nuances. Science is nuanced but she turns everything into black and white which is easy to understand but not necessarily accurate.”

Vani Hari reads a package's list of ingredients in a promotional photo.
Vani Hari magnifies a package’s list of ingredients in a promotional photo. Kwaku Alston

Hari’s degree is in computer science and before she started the blog she was working as a management consultant.

“Everyone is capable of becoming an expert in something they are passionate about. You don’t need a degree to learn, investigate and take charge of your health,” she says.

Hari, along with the followers she calls her Food Babe Army, successfully used social media postings and a petition with 50,000 signatures to get Subway to remove from its sandwich breads a dough conditioner called azodicarbonamide, a chemical she claims is the same thing used to make yoga mats and the soles of shoes; a substance that’s banned in the United Kingdom and Australia. She says the chemical could cause respiratory ailments.

Hari made a video of herself eating a yoga mat that helped make her point.

Her other targets include Kraft, which Hari presented with a petition of 380,000 signatures to successfully get the company to remove artificial food dyes from its Kraft Mac & Cheese.

And Hari got Starbucks to stop using a caramel coloring she termed hazardous in the company’s best-selling seasonal coffee, the pumpkin spice latte. Turns out the pumpkin lattes were not made with real pumpkin, which Starbucks, after Hari’s efforts, has added to the pumpkin coffee drinks.

Hari is still going after Starbucks, this time to get the company to switch from serving conventionally produced milk in all its coffee drinks to certified organic milk.

Hari says the milk Starbucks currently offers its customers is from cows raised on GMO feed. She says she knows that because “the vast majority of GMO crops are not put into human food but instead used to feed farm animals and make biofuels.” She calls it “Monsanto milk.”

Hari says she’s been working for more than two years to get Starbucks to use organic milk. Last week, she renewed the effort by urging her supporters to swamp Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters with phone calls to push for the change,

She says, “Starbucks is responding slowly by offering some non-dairy options, but has not yet committed to serving organic milk.”

I got in touch with Starbucks myself. A company spokeswoman in Seattle, who identified herself only as Gaby, said, “We understand that organic milk is an important issue for some of our customers and are constantly evaluating customer feedback and requests. We offer customers the choice of organic soymilk in most of our stores, globally, and single-serving organic milk is available in our U.S. stores.”

At the end of Hari’s talk, Lukens of the Center for Food Safety decided to eliminate the planned question and answer session.

“We had run out of time. Also most people had come because they wanted to hear Vani’s story, not to witness a fight,” Lukens says.

That was what made the evening interesting … a talk about food activism that some felt needed extra security. It shows how polarized, yet fascinating, the discussion of chemical food additives and GMOs remains.

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