Getting beyond the hype

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — The past few months have not been positive for the purveyors of misinformation. From Vani Hari to Dr. Oz it has been refreshing to see news organizations push back against unsubstantiated claims related to diet, health and even the safety of foodstuffs.

That there is consistent demand for food and beverage products that are processed, local, certified organic or perceived as natural is positive. It represents a dynamic marketplace that allows producers and processors to differentiate and compete in a variety of venues.

What is negative is the use of fear-inducing marketing tactics in an effort to gain a competitive edge or promote a business. Sadly, many of these marketing tactics have gone unchallenged in the mainstream press.

Yet reporters and columnists are starting to ask more questions. Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe, is a case in point. Ms. Hari has built a lucrative business on scaring consumers. Her work has been lauded and even earned her favorable profiles from a variety of national media outlets.

But starting a few weeks ago her fortunes began to change. Yvette d’Entremont, who is also known as the Science Babe, published an opinion piece on April 6 on the Gawker web site (click to view). Ms. d’Entremont’s column went viral and sparked other media outlets to cast a critical eye toward many of Ms. Hari’s claims. Some of those articles include:

• “How to engage with popular messengers who exploit fear,” Discover Magazine;

• “Reporting on quacks and pseudoscience: The problem for journalists,” Los Angeles Times;

• “'Food Babe' Debacle Underscores Crisis of Credibility Surrounding What We Eat,” Adweek;

• “5 ‘Food Babe’ myths you shouldn’t believe,” Fox News; and

• “How should journalists cover quacks like Dr. Oz and the Food Babe?,” Vox.com.

By themselves, none of these stories are game changers, but they do hopefully illustrate the emergence of a healthy skepticism toward the unsubstantiated claims made by such people as Ms. Hari and others.

There is room for civil debate regarding the merits of specific ingredients, the use of bioengineered ingredients and even the benefits of organic vs. non-organic foodstuffs. But a line should be drawn at that point when people claim companies are poisoning their customers. Such claims reek of hucksterism and their sources should be run out of town like those that came before them.

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