What We Can Learn From Food Babe’s Victory Over Big Beer

Here's how a media-savvy blogger got Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to listen to her.

Photos: Annheuser-Busch, Food Babe

Photos: Annheuser-Busch, Food Babe

Vani Hari, the blogger known as Food Babe, is an internet food activist who recently achieved one of her most high profile coups to date.

In the name of transparency, she got international brewing titans Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to list the ingredients of their most popular beers online. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly water, barley malt, corn, yeast, and hops).

What’s amazing is the speed at which she extracted a response from two of the biggest beer manufacturers in the world—Anheuser-Busch responded directly to the Food Babe within two days of her launching an online petition, which currently has more than 55,800 signatures.

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[All photos: via facebook.com/thefoodbabe]

The petition follows one of Hari’s blog post from last year, clickbaitingly-titled The Shocking Ingredients in Beer, in which she points out that brewers are not required to list their ingredients on labels and investigates some of the constituent elements used in certain brands. She points to the use of GMO corn, natural and artificial coloring, preservatives, and animal derived products like gelatin. None of which is particularly surprising, but if you are trying to lead a vegan or GMO-free lifestyle, this is the kind of consumer information that you want (and should have) access to.

With every campaign, her brand and following grows.

The Food Babe has taken on corporations before, with varying degrees of efficacy. Since she launched her healthy eating blog in 2011, she’s extracted commitments from the likes of Chick-fil-A, Kraft, Chipotle and Subway to improve their products. Some pledged to remove chemical additives and food dyes, others to phase out corn syrup and GMOs. Her main weapon is the Food Babe Army, which wields its collective clout through online petitions and social media pressure. With every campaign, her brand and following grows; according to her online bio she’s commentated on CNN and The Dr. Oz Show, and been covered by the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times.

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[Hari as a guest on Fox News' A Healthy You & Carol Alt show]

Her populist crusading has drawn strong criticism, however. In a thorough and factual takedown of both her original beer post and recent petition, surgical oncologist and academic David Gorski calls Hari the Jenny McCarthy of food, alluding to McCarthy’s public but scientifically questionable assertions that vaccines can cause autism. In a piece for Science Based Medicine, he condemns the Food Babe for “peddling pseudoscience” as well as using “scary chemical names” as propaganda, especially in her petition video. He writes:

Her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names.

As Forbes writer Trevor Butterworth points out, the Food Babe takes issue with the fact that an anti-freeze ingredient, propylene glycol, is allowed in beer production. But he counters that it’s not dangerous in the amounts we’re talking about, and furthermore, it’s not actually in the beer itself, it’s in the cooling system.

Academic David Gorski condemns the Food Babe for using ‘scary chemical names’ as propaganda.

Gorski also calls out the Food Babe’s manipulative language surrounding where things come from. She notes that natural flavoring “can come from anything natural including a beavers anal gland” and that an ingredient derived from dried fish swim bladders is sometimes used as a clarifying agent. While these are oversimplifications, they are true. But just because something comes from a distasteful sounding source, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, argues Gorski.

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The Food Babe may use sensationalist, misleading allegations to rally support for her cause, but she understands marketing and spin—and so do the companies that capitulate to her demands. In a December New York Times article about online activists like the Food Babe, a partner at consulting firm Booz & Company revealed that food companies increasingly use social media to learn about their customers, and that data informs their products, their advertising, and their response to complaints.

“Instead of relying on a P.R. firm, you have analytical tools to quantify how big an issue it is and how rapidly it’s spreading and how influential the people hollering are,” he said. “Then you can make a decision about how to respond.”

Vani Hari has shown the power of consumers to challenge large corporations.

And as the Food Babe points out in her own petition, listing beer ingredients online costs Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors nothing. Especially since there’s nothing controversial or dangerous in the ingredients so far—not even fish bladders. When you look at what the Food Babe has actually achieved here, a little more transparency from two big beer producers is not the main feat. She’s shown the power of consumers to challenge large corporations, and the potency that regular people can have when they engage in a cause. She’s also markedly furthered her own brand and influence, so that the next company she takes on will not have the option to ignore her.

  • Darin Martin

    “Food Babe” is a little pretentious, methinks. She has those “crazy eyes” like Shannon Dogherty, with one bigger than the other. Stay clear of this chick.

  • Christopher Miller

    How about pushing wine to do the same?

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