It isn’t just the Clintons who listen to Dr. Hyman. Despite having contributed nothing to medical science—unless you count his "UltraWellness Center" a contribution—Hyman is massively influential. He features in Fed Up, Katie Couric’s documentary about obesity. He appears regularly on CNN, Today, The View, and Dr. Oz. And for those who question his bona fides, he can point to his new position as director of the renowned Cleveland Clinic’s “Center for Functional Medicine”.
So what kind of reading material might Dr. Hyman recommend to the Clintons, or Katie Couric, or his patients? One book he clearly loves is Vani Hari’s The Food Babe Way, to be released February 10th. In his rhapsodic foreword, Hyman compares Hari to Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and to Martin Luther King. “[She] changes everything about how we see the world,” writes Hyman, and through “stunning detective work uncovers nearly every toxin in our food system.”
Hyman’s praise is somewhat shocking. For many scientists, the only stunning thing about Hari is the depth and conviction of her ignorance. After all, this is the person who warned against eating products containing cellulose because “no one should be eating wood…Yuck!” She even told her legions of followers—the Food Babe Army—that “water heated in the microwave resulted in a crystal similar to that created by the word Satan.”
That’s right: The MLK of food toxicity suggested that saying Satan to water will make it evil. (Hari has since deleted the blog post, admitting it was not her “most impressive piece of work”.)
An endorsement from Dr. Hyman will surely further the Food Babe’s credibility and power. This power is already formidable: she and her army forced Subway to remove azodicarbonamide—“the yoga mat chemical”—from its bread, and got Anheuser-Busch to disclose beer ingredients after she hinted one might be antifreeze. (Hari confused propylene glycol, which is used in antifreeze, with propylene glycol alginate, an unrelated kelp derivative.)
There’s nothing wrong with encouraging industry transparency, and in that sense Hyman’s hero is doing admirable work. People really should know what they’re eating, and absent the threat of consumer advocacy corporations would certainly be less forthcoming.
But advocacy shouldn’t entail vacuous generalizations about “toxins,” the consequences of which are front and center in the current epidemic of vaccine fear. Hari’s strategy of demonizing whatever she can’t pronounce or grosses her out isn’t just unscientific. It’s dangerous. Fetal calf serum—ewww!—is present in many vaccinations. And propylene glycol—yes, the antifreeze kind—could help create more freeze-stable vaccines, protecting them during cold-chain transport. Public figures like Hari have a duty to help people understand the complexity of chemistry, instead of encouraging irrational toxicity verdicts on the basis of “yuck” factor.
On vaccines Hyman himself is deftly equivocal. In one blog post he calls his stance “aggressively pro-vaccine.” But in another he tells the ominous story of Sam, an autistic 2 ½ year-old, “who talked, walked, loved, and played normally—that is, until after his measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination at 22 months.” Scary!
(The Food Babe is equally hard to pin down. She calls herself pro-vaccine, but also refuses the flu vaccine and cites anti-vaccine advocate and professional fearmonger Joseph Mercola as a "health expert" and personal hero.)
Hari is not a medical professional, so her behavior, if not excusable, is at least understandable. But it’s hard to understand why Dr. Hyman would endorse—and practice—the same kind of dangerous nonsense. “How could we know…that common foods contain secretions from beavers’ anal glands?” asks Hyman in his foreword. A better question to ask is why we should care.
The age of the internet has combined extraordinary information access with woeful scientific illiteracy—a recipe for disaster, particularly when fear is added to the mix. Dividing the world up according to simple moralistic binaries—“chemicals” bad, “natural” good—makes it impossible to think critically about vaccines or emerging technologies like GMOs.
We should worry about Dr. Hyman’s influence. Intelligent people can still be suckered by pseudoscience (the Reagans famously consulted an astrologer). Vani Hari argues for our right to know about toxins in our food. Equally important is the right to know about toxic rhetoric that might poison the minds of powerful policymakers and a vulnerable public. No high-profile medical professional—save, perhaps, for Dr. Oz—would ever endorse Hari’s irresponsible approach to food and medicine.
Dr. Hyman has done so, and the Cleveland Clinic and the Clintons lend him unjustified credibility. Let’s come together, like the Food Babe Army has so many times, and hold them accountable.