More Than a Pretty Face
By Vaughan Dugan
Vani Hariwill tell you it’s no coincidence her mother chose to name her for the Hindi word meaning “voice.” In the past few years, her voice has reached millions, part of a personal mission to empower Americans into making better food choices.
But her followers don’t call her Vani. Instead, she’s known as the “Food Babe,” a true change agent, impassioned activist and investigative food blogger with a national army of dedicated fans behind her.
Since 2011, Hari has penned dozens of investigative pieces researching the potentially harmful ingredients that go into some of our nation’s favorite foods. As a result, her words have helped enact major change, everything from the bread in your Subway sandwich, to the chicken you and in your Chick-fil-a.
The Food Babe certainly has our attention, and the nation is listening.
LIVING THE DREAM
Hari wasn’t always the Food Babe. For much of her life, the now 34-year-old admits her daily diet was more about fast food and vending machines than a campaign for healthy eating. It was a bad habit she attributes to work, living the “American Dream,” as a successful financial consultant with a top-tier firm in her hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Prestige aside, it was hard work, and her drive to climb the corporate ladder meant forgoing health in favor of long hours, a grueling work schedule and incessant travel. It also meant lavish expense accounts for decadent client dinners, catered events and plenty of late-night work sessions fueled by fast food, coffee and soda. She’d go for anything her heart desired: soda, potato chips and her own personal pièce de résistance, candy. Lots of candy.
“This is all normal,” Hari recalls. “I’m living the dream, traveling the world, and one day if I work really hard, I’ll be made a partner.”
What wasn’t normal was the 30 pounds she packed on in less than six months — the result of too much stress, too little sleep and poor eating habits. But it wasn’t just the weight gain that troubled her. One evening, Hari developed an excruciating pain in her side, prompting a trip to the emergency room. After doctors brushed her symptoms off, they sent her home, told her to take some Advil and call if anything changed. When the pain didn’t end, Hari made the decision to meet with a specialist for a second opinion and was immediately diagnosed with a severe case of appendicitis. Her appendix was removed that week. Little did she know the roller coaster horror story of her personal health problems would be the catalyst to reroute her to become an “accidental” activist.
While recovering from surgery, Hari felt a nagging urge to learn more about what might have caused her appendicitis. Doctors casually offered their explanation — that it was a random occurrence, something that could happen to anybody. Hari didn’t buy it. Why hadn’t they asked her about her diet or her high-stress job, and other lifestyle choices that may have contributed to her “random” illness? She knew there was more to her illness than random complications, and she was determined to learn more.
At the time, the holiday season was in full swing, so Hari had nothing but time on her hands to get to work. She was ready for a change — a serious change.
“It didn’t make sense why I was here [so] I decided to investigate my own health,” Hari said. “I quickly realized your appendix is in your digestive system, it’s attached to your intestines, and when it becomes inflamed because you are eating inflammatory foods, that is what will cause it to burst.”
So what else was she missing about the food/health connection? Determined to find out, the former nationally ranked debate team champ took research into her own hands and made the connection between her poor health and the food that she was eating. Even before her surgery, Hari wasn’t a pillar of health. In addition to her “killer” diet, she was on six prescription medications — eight if it was allergy season — and the only time she set foot near a gym was when she walked by one on the way to the breakfast buffet at her hotel.
Hari immediately began researching her dirty dozen food favorites — not just the nutritional content like calories, fat and sugar but the ingredients. “I realized it was a bunch of ingredients I couldn’t even pronounce, things that definitely didn’t look like real food, so I started looking into where these things came from,” she said. Hari discovered a majority of food that she was consuming contained a base of soy or corn. Although it sounds like a no-brainer today, this was back in 2002, Hari says, long before the great gluten scare of 2010, or national headlines warning of genetically modified foods.
In response, Hari immediately stopped eating all processed foods, including anything made with corn and soy. She also eliminated as many other toxic ingredients: artificial dyes made out of petroleum, genetically engineered ingredients and trans-fats. Instead, she chose to eat real food, like whole fruits and vegetables, and made the choice to put her health as a number one priority.
Family and friends began to take note of the dramatic transformation that was happening. “Within a very short period of time, I’d say a month and a half, I lost all that extra weight.” The butterfly was slowly emerging from her cocoon.
THE FOOD BABE IS BORN
For anyone going through a similar personal metamorphosis — mental or physical — the people around take note. It leads to questions. Family and friends start asking “why?” and “how?”
Hari’s inner circle, including her co-workers, was no different. They wanted every detail. What was she eating? Where did she shop? Why buy organic foods? As the questions filtered in, one of her friends suggested she start a blog. Up for the challenge, Hari thought the tagline “eat healthy, live forever,” sounded like a good mantra, but her husband hated it. Instead, he suggested she call herself the “Food Babe.”
“I [was very reluctant to use the name] because I never saw myself that way,” Hari wrote anonymously under her new moniker as the food babe for over a year. “But I thought [I would] teach other people to become a food babe.”
The majority of Hari’s early posts were recipe related, from healthy living tips like dining out while traveling, or how to select the healthiest products at the grocery store — information her circle of friends were clamoring for.
Along her quest for knowledge, Hari quickly garnered an audience that spread far beyond her small circle of friends of confidants. She even set up a Facebook page, albeit kicking and screaming.
“Life isn’t about money. It’s about purpose and doing what you were put on this Earth to do.”
Investigative reporting, however, wasn’t something she saw coming. Instead, it was born out of necessity while Hari was shopping at the local mall. She happened upon Yoforia, a local chain advertising “organic” frozen yogurt. Finally, she thought, a place to get a healthy, organic treat.
But the same voice that once questioned her sudden illness came back to haunt Hari a second time.
Surely, something this good couldn’t possibly be good for you. After all, one of her favorite flavors was a neon blue color that didn’t look natural at all.
When Hari asked the Yoforia manager and the company headquarters for a list of ingredients, they refused. A few weeks of persistence proved fruitful when a store employee handed over boxes and packaging from the store products. Yes, they may have had integrity by using organic yogurt, but much to Hari’s surprise all the additives they were mixing with the yogurt were horrible. Her favorite flavor, “Brilliant Blue,” had FD&C Blue.
No.1 along with artificial flavors, sweeteners, trans-fats and a myriad of other processed ingredients. It prompted Hari to write her first investigative report.
“Not to out the store for its unhealthy ingredients,” she recalls, but to show her fans the importance of using common sense, reading nutrition labels and asking questions
The blog post went viral, and the company’s CEO sent her a personal letter to address the issue. Although they didn’t remove the questionable ingredients, the store immediately pulled any false or misleading marketing. It was a small victory, but one that would later carve a path for bigger work.
The next victory was no small task but rather one for the history books. It began one day when Hari’s husband came home from work with a nutritional brochure from Chick-Fil-A. It was a popular lunch stop for many of his coworkers, who were all convinced it was a healthy choice for a quick meal. Hari set out to prove them wrong.
Her first discovery was that MSG was one of the top ingredients for their chicken sandwich, in addition to a derivative of butane known as TBHQ, which is found in some peanut oils. She took to her personal Facebook page and posted the ingredients to get an idea for how people would react to reading something about a popular fast food chain.
“I got so many comments that day…and many were surprised, as well, but some just brushed it off,” Hari said.
In response, Hari whipped up a strongly worded, heart-felt blog post titled “Chick-Fil-A or Chemical-Fil-A.” In it, she disclosed the dozens of chemical ingredients found in the fast food giant’s standard chicken sandwich. It went viral, setting off a chain reaction of media inquiries across the country. What she didn’t expect, however, was the email questions that came later, readers and fans asking specific questions she wasn’t prepared to answer.
“That meeting really helped me [to see] this is why I was put on this earth. This is my calling,” Hari said. “It was that commitment that this was what I need to be doing. And once I did, things started to change.”
The one email she will never forget, however, was one from the head of product development at Chick-Fil-A inviting her to company headquarters for a special meeting. Countless scenarios ran through her mind. Should she go? Would they listen to her, the part-time investigative reporter?’
They did. Today, Chick-Fil-A has pledged to have 100 percent antibiotic-free chicken by 2015, a phenomenal step towards offering the American public a healthier product.
SUBWAY, YOU’RE NEXT
You could say the best recipe Hari ever created was her own personal combination of passion and purpose. Put them together and magic happens. In Hari’s case, it motivated her to quit a six-figure job to become the Food Babe full-time, and within two months Hari launched a major campaign against Kraft questioning the ingredients in their famed mac-n-cheese. The familiar brand name caught the media’s attention, and she was featured on every major news network, countless talk shows and interviewed by dozens of magazines.
Determined to keep going, Hari’s next target — and the most publicized to date — was the fight she picked with Subway, the world’s largest fast food restaurant chain. It began with a petition to persuade the company to remove azodicarbonamide, a chemical commonly found in plastic products, from their bread. Within 24 hours of her first blog post and online petition, Hari gathered more than 50,000 signatures from around the globe. The campaign catapulted Food Babe into the national spotlight. But for Hari, the fight wasn’t about the bread anymore.
“It was more than removing the chemical. It was forcing people to ask what ‘eating fresh’ truly meant,” she recalls, after Subway launched a national advertising campaign to announce they had removed azodicarbonamide from their bread. “If they are putting this stuff in their bread, what are they adding to their meat? When everyone wakes up, things will change. And people are waking up.”
Hari’s fight is against more than just harmful ingredients in our food. Her research has also brought her into the beverage world, specifically beer. Why? Federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, don’t require beer companies to label ingredients on their products And even though most Americans would never think to ask, Hari did. Her call for greater transparency began in July 2013 when she accused large brewers of using ingredients like propylene glycol, genetically modified sugars and corn, caramel coloring and isinglass (an ingredient obtained from dried swim fish bladders in their beer.
A breakthrough finally came this June, after more than a year of research, proving once again how a single blog post can move mountains after Hari launched a petition asking the nation’s biggest breweries — Anheuser- Busch and MillerCoors — to disclose their ingredients online.
After 24 hours, and 43,000 signatures later, Anheiser-Busch agreed to publicly reveal the list of ingredients for its beers at TapIntoYourBeer.com
Hari is first to admit she isn’t fighting alone. Her army of fans and followers, which can be found behind #foodbabearmy, have been integral in championing change right alongside her and providing the necessary voices to propel each issue into the national spotlight. What began as a single woman’s journey to health and wellness has transformed into a mission to bring transparency, honesty and integrity to America’s food industry.
“Life isn’t about money. It’s about purpose and doing what you were put on this earth to do,” Hari said
When a single person stands up to a giant, international food chain and wins, it inspires the hero in all of us. But Hari’s story is more than inspiring. It’s a reminder that when you have something important to say, and a way to be heard.
Life isn’t about money. It’s about purpose and doing what you were put on this Earth to do.” -Vani Hari, aka Food Babe.