When two students at Oklahoma State University cooked 56 boxes’ worth of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for the bath bomb of their dreams, people everywhere were put off their Easy Mac. Many others responded about the gross waste of food and poor judgment behind the students’ impromptu photo shoot.
Teen Vogue, our surprising moral compass during America’s aggressively orange spectacles, remained neutral. Citing the blue box depicted in the students’ original tweet, they reminded readers that while the feat was unusual, the students were at least bathing in a tub void of artificial dyes and preservatives.
Kraft added that messaging to its packaging one year ago. The story of how that packaging changed suggests that few of us can be rational when it comes to one of the world’s greatest comfort foods.
Sign here for mac and cheese that won’t make you sick and kill you
In Spring 2013, Vani Hari, the food activist and blogger behind Food Babe, petitioned Kraft to remove two artificial dyes – Yellow 4 and Yellow 5 – from their Macaroni and Cheese. Whether it was from the pressure of the 365,807 petitioners, the ensuing media coverage, or just their company’s plan, Kraft agreed to remove all artificial colors from their Mac and Cheese two years ago, in April 2015.
It’s a great story. Concerned citizens petition a company to remove harmful chemicals from their food. Company removes said chemicals. Concerned citizens celebrate victory.
There’s another version of the story, however. One in which an improperly trained writer spreads inaccurate and inflammatory information about food additives, leading to consumer distrust of individual brands and the food industry as a whole.
Except that’s not quite the narrative either. The Food Babe absolutely trades in dubious science and inflammatory rhetoric, but the food companies that Hari has declared war against, as well as other researchers concerned with the ethics of her approach, often resort to approaches that garner more clicks and less rigorous thinking.
Hari has a poor reputation among chemists and food scientists for spreading chemophobia. Just naming a food component as a “chemical” is enough to deploy Hari’s Food Army to the next battle against a company who uses azodicarbonamide or Caramel Color IV.
In one profile, Hari breaks down the formulas she uses to incite outrage in her readers. One such formula is to identify an ingredient found in the food supply and then name its secondary, non-food purpose. The formula is simple and easily repeatable. Subway is feeding you the same chemicals in yoga mats! Kraft Macaroni and Cheese contains ingredients derived from petroleum, which is also found in the roads you drove on to go to the grocery store!
Hari’s claims about the dangers of Yellow 4 and Yellow 5 have been thoroughly debunked, but the fact that it’s much easier to prove a positive (substance X causes cancer) than a negative (substance Y doesn’t cause cancer) leaves the door open for food activists to argue there is no safe amount of any chemical.
As parents, we should be combating both chemophobia and poor logical reasoning. We should be teaching our kids that cooking is chemistry, that chemicals are not evil, and that the dose makes the poison. We should also be teaching healthy skepticism grounded in scientific methods.
Given the dubious science that has led one outlet to dub Hari the “Jenny McCarthy of the food industry,” should we just dismiss her work along with the OSU bathing beauties who actually aspire to be Becky with the good hair?
Hari’s critics, who often resort to ad-hominem attacks, are doing nothing to help their own arguments about food safety and scientific rigor. Some critics suggest Hari is listened to only because she is beautiful. Also concerning, are the critics who suggest that because Hari has only a computer science degree, she somehow cannot engage in other kinds of scientific inquiry.
The problem is not that Hari is too pretty to talk about science, or that she is unqualified to talk about science. We all lose when we make these kinds of claims. We should be teaching our children to respect the knowledge and experience of experts. At the same time, we should also teach them to be dabblers, including how to ask good research questions in many different settings.
Not telling the whole truth
Even if Hari’s work is unscientific, scientists ignore her at their peril. As the Kraft controversy and many of the other battles Hari has waged make clear, the issue is never about what’s scientifically accurate. It’s not even about whether or not food manufacturers or marketers are acting ethically. It’s about whether consumers trust them. That trust isn’t necessarily about having better science, or even making ethical choices that put customers’ health first.
That’s a really tricky problem. If Kraft is a representative case, activists like the Food Babe, in trying to make the food industry more transparent, are actually making it more opaque.
Kraft changed the formulation of its Mac and Cheese last year without telling anybody. In fact, the company waited until it had sold over 50 million boxes of its new version before launching its “Didn’t Notice” campaign to consumers.
There is good evidence to suggest that if people were told they were eating a “healthier” version of their beloved product they would find it inferior, but in setting up its nationwide “blind taste test,” Kraft used many of the pseudo-scientific strategies Hari employs. The fact that 50 million boxes were sold, or even the fact that people didn’t complain directly to the company, does not mean that consumers didn’t notice a difference.
Kraft’s assertion that on January 13, 2016, 11 million people were tweeting about not winning the lottery while none were tweeting about something wrong with their mac and cheese, while a funny ad campaign, is also terrible evidence for the public’s acceptance of its reformulated product.
We want the same things from food companies that we want as parents. A little creative re-branding is often necessary to sway kids to our side. But don’t engage in half-truths. Don’t compare numbers that have no relation to each other, and don’t hide vegetables in the brownies.
The internet makes it possible to buy whole cases of Mac and Cheese with a single click. It makes it possible for all of us to witness a Mac and Cheese-filled bathtub, but it also amplifies the voice of anyone who can amass followers. Hari’s blog is like that Mac and Cheese-filled bathtub. It will take a long time to clean up the mess, and longer still to remove all trace of it from the minds of those who re-tweeted it.