Food Babe breezes into a public-radio station in Charlotte, N.C., clutching a $10 jar of raw juice and dressed from her morning workout — Lululemon tank, sequined black Uggs and a charm necklace blessed in India.
Food Babe is the nom de blog for Vani Hari, a 35-year-old banking consultant turned food activist, who has built a loyal online audience by calling out companies from Starbucks to Chick-fil-A for ingredients she deems harmful.
Hari belongs to an emerging tribe of Web activists who use attention-grabbing — some say outlandish — methods to pressure companies to change their ways.
While it’s legitimate to ask whether campaigns joined with the click of a mouse have staying power and depth, activist bloggers have put a spotlight on controversial issues of the day.
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In some cases, they’ve forced companies to respond.
Kraft removed artificial dyes from some of its Macaroni & Cheese after Hari dumped 270,000 signatures calling for the change at the company’s Chicago doorstep. Fast-food chain Chick-fil-A said it would remove antibiotics from its chicken after Hari chronicled more than 100 ingredients in its flagship sandwich.
Grabbing attention in a fragmented society often requires a heavy dose of hyperbole. There’s the catch. Hari’s claims about ominous-sounding yet little-used additives, including one derived from a beaver’s anal gland, go viral. They also give critics ammunition to dilute and even discredit her message.
Because Hari sells ads on her website, detractors say it’s in her interest to generate controversy in exchange for eyeballs. Choosing Food Babe as a blog handle has prompted some critics to say she is using her looks to get undue attention.
“She gets on all these talk shows partly because she is easier to look at,” said Joe Schwarcz, who runs the Office for Science & Society, a department at McGill University in Montreal dedicated to sorting out pseudoscience. “Her scientific background is nonexistent.”
Food Babe runs her empire from an Apple MacBook Air on a small metal desk in the living room of her high-rise condo in Charlotte’s banking district.
Her husband, Finley Clarke, manages the website in a spare bedroom a few feet away. The walls are lined with photos of the couple, who have no children, globe-trotting in Africa, Asia and South America.
Less than four years ago, Hari was afraid of social media, worried a slip of the thumb could jeopardize her consulting contracts implementing technology and strategy at Bank of America and other financial institutions. Now, photos on Hari’s website and blog flaunt her perfectly applied cosmetics, shiny black hair and petite frame. She has appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show,” “Good Morning America” and “Inside Edition.”
Hari’s transformation from consultant to Food Babe happened so fast, she’s still coming to terms with it. When asked if she’s using her looks to get attention, she said her husband came up with Food Babe, yelling the name from another room when she was brainstorming. He thought her original idea — eathealthyliveforever.com — was forgettable.
After pursuing a computer-science degree at the University of North Carolina, Hari went to work for Accenture in 2002, where she toiled long hours on tedious deadline projects. Fast food, especially Chick-fil-A, was a dietary staple. A steady stream of candy made the late nights more tolerable. Food was catered in. Doughnuts were ubiquitous.
“I gained over 30 pounds,” Hari said.
She was also taking at least half-a-dozen prescriptions to control everything from eczema to allergies. In late 2002, at age 23, Hari was rushed into surgery with appendicitis after a stabbing pain in her side. She decided her diet was to blame.
“It started this whole new lifestyle that I would pay attention to what I ate,” she said. “I became very investigative about my food. I wanted to know why food processors were using these chemicals.”
Hari’s weight declined, her eczema cleared up and she phased out her prescriptions. Friends and family noticed. They wanted to know how and she was happy to preach. Friends suggested she blog.
The blog became a catalog of Hari’s obsession with the chemicals in processed food and recipes to combat them. The hobby evolved into a series of high-velocity posts — studded with words like “tricked,” “hiding” and “duped” — detailing what Hari calls “investigations” into what Americans eat. Friends loved it. Then strangers signed on, too.
“There’s somebody else reading the blog,” she recalled thinking. “This is amazing.” She was hooked.
Comscore estimates FoodBabe.com’s July Web and mobile audience at 795,000 unique visitors in July. That compares with almost 14 million visits for Starbucks’ multiple websites and mobile apps. It hit a peak in February and March, when she targeted Subway. New investigations predictably spike traffic. The investigations drive readers to Hari’s Monthly Eating Guide, which she says is her primary source of revenue.
So far, the food industry has treated Hari more like an annoyance than a threat.
Starbucks, however, is keeping its distance. The coffee chain invited her to Seattle in March, after she’d taken the company to task for using high-fructose corn syrup in frappuccinos and azodicarbonamide in pastries.
By May, the coffee chain had rescinded the offer, saying the visit and even an extended phone call with executives wouldn’t be productive. A couple of months later, Hari posted an item about Starbucks’ use of caramel color in its pumpkin lattes.
Starbucks said that while the optional caramel sauce for its Frappuccino drinks does contain high-fructose corn syrup, the company has eliminated pastries with azodicarbonamide. The company said it was working to get rid of caramel coloring before Hari’s questions.
For Hari, the victories represent a consumer awakening and a methodical progression toward transparency. Viewed over time, Hari is advancing a conversation that is prompting food companies to create new product lines, shift marketing away from old ones and treat consumers differently.
“The consumer views anything that comes from a big branded food company as less credible,” said Ali Dibadj, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “The Internet brings transparency. There is no longer a monopoly of information.”
Companies have spent years cutting costs by replacing natural ingredients with artificial ones, while overselling the message that the products still taste great and are good for you, Dibadj said. Now that consumers are calling them on it, a reversal to natural ingredients is sure to hurt profit.
Hari is just getting started. She has signed with a production company to create her own TV show and she’ll publish a book called “The Food Babe Way” in February detailing her journey and philosophy.
Maintaining a business means the investigations have to keep coming. Inevitably, they will also have to get bolder. That means the retorts are sure to get louder and more hostile, too.
“If I read everything on the Net,” Hari said. “I would go insane.”