I am reminded of the man who was asked what plagiarism was. He said: “It is plagiarism when you take something out of a book and use it as your own. If you take it out of several books then it is research.”
Ralph Foss, 1932
I don’t consider myself a writer or a journalist. I barely even consider myself a blogger. No one has paid me for my thoughts on skepticism or science or the myriad other things I’m drawn to write about, but I’ve always tried to follow the same code as ethical journalists.
Unfortunately, integrity isn’t something that crosses most people’s minds these days. Everyone has to weigh in on everything. Ignorance is no longer an obstacle to overcome, nor is competence a prerequisite. Pick any topic and you’ll find dozens and dozens of opinions, perspectives, and variations on the facts. Google has made us all experts and that should’ve been a good thing.
Pseudoscience and woo have always existed. There’s no telling how many of our daily rituals and habits are borne out of some old wives’ tales passed down from generation to generation—things few of us ever think to question. Some stories fade away as we learn more about the world, but others, usually the more nefarious kind, have persisted long past their expiration dates. The internet, for all the good it’s brought the world, can take some, if not most, of the blame for that.
But what does this have to do with integrity and sharing ideas?
There’s so much information out there, and CTRL+C is so easy, plagiarism has become all too enticing. Some of us feel so compelled to saturate the market with ourselves, that we become our own worst enemies. Our minds go blank. We start to seek out a topic that can inspire one or two thousand words. Anything that will remind people “Hey, I exist!” That pressure to produce starts to build, and… AND…
“It’s just one sentence. Change a word here, move that there, and write a commentary around it. Well, the original context was written better, so copy this sentence too.”
Before long, an entire article has been pieced together from the scraps of others. No one should notice. It’s been edited enough to pass off as original. Spell check looks good. Publish.
A day goes by. A week. A month. A year. The article has taken on a life of its own—getting passed around the internet like a bad case of herpes. Everything is great until the wrong (or right) person reads it and experiences a bit of déjà vu.
Recently, I was that person—swearing I’d read something before. Being curious to a fault, I did a bit of snooping. It wasn’t long before my suspicions were confirmed. Vani Hari AKA The Food Babe may be a plagiarist.
Now, plagiarism is a very serious accusation, and I’m never content to see one result before reaching a conclusion. I’d be a pretty terrible skeptic if I was. So, in the interest of fairness and an obsessive need to be thorough, I started dissecting posts on foodbabe.com one by one. What I found was not only dishearteningly unethical but also bizarre.
Here are just five examples of Food Babe being less than ethical…
October 22, 2013
This is the post that started me down the most torturous rabbit trail I’ve ever explored. Reading so much anti-knowledge caused me legitimate physical pain, but I did discover that Advil Migraine is a wonder drug. I strongly recommend it. But that’s enough shilling. Let’s see what Mrs. Babe has to say about Silly Putty.
Dimethylpolysiloxane is commonly used in vinegary-smelling silicone caulks, adhesives, and aquarium sealants, a component in silicone grease and other silicone based lubricants, as well as in defoaming agents, mold release agents, damping fluids, heat transfer fluids, polishes, cosmetics, hair conditioners AND IN OUR FOOD!
Oh no! PDMS has multiple uses!
I think we’re all familiar with Food Babe’s schtick by now, so I’m not going to pursue it any further. But this passage jumped out at me for some reason. Maybe it was the use of words like “defoaming” or “damping” that piqued my interest. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s underlined in red.
Why does it matter? This is why.
Many people are indirectly familiar with PDMS because it is an important component in Silly Putty, to which PDMS imparts its characteristic viscoelastic properties. The rubbery, vinegary-smelling silicone caulks, adhesives, and aquarium sealants are also well-known. PDMS is also used as a component in silicone grease and other silicone based lubricants, as well as in defoaming agents, mold release agents, damping fluids, heat transfer fluids, polishes, cosmetics, hair conditioners and other applications. PDMS has also been used as a filler fluid in breast implants.
Yes. Food Babe lifted a passage directly from Wikipedia. There’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a jumping off point. I use it all the time and I’m not ashamed to admit that. But this… This is just bad.
Anyone who wants to check her facts on polydimethylsiloxane will be greeted with the Wiki entry as the first Google result. The first!
Some defenders of the Food Babe might be inclined to say, “Well, it’s obvious that someone changed Wikipedia to match her article.” And any other time, my detractors might be right.
This isn’t one of those times.
This is how the PDMS entry looked on October 13, 2006. That’s a full seven years before Vani shocked the world with her discovery that chemistry is complicated.
October 7, 2013
This is one of my favorite Food Babe travesties. It contains nine kinds of ignorance regarding plant biology, hypocrisy about food additives, and general silliness about ways the food industry lines it pockets. Are they trying to trick us into eating less or eating more? Who knows?
Long story short, cellulose is bad because we can’t digest it and it comes from wood. I guess no one told poor Vani what makes up all that kale and wheatgrass she loves so much, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up her endorsement of chlorophyll that humans also can’t digest. Somehow I feel the irony is lost on her. But this is about cellulose, so let’s talk about cellulose. Vani, take it away.
That one is a little more colorful than the last. Let’s take them one at a time.
Food Babe says: Cellulose can be called by these different names on the ingredients label: Carboxymethyl cellulose, Microcrystalline Cellulose, or MCC, and Cellulose Gum.
Looks like about.com agrees with that assessment. That’s interesting.
What else do you have for us, Vani?
Food Babe says:
- Humans cannot digest cellulose. It has no caloric value. The food industry tricks consumers who eat foods with a high cellulose content to feel full physically and psychologically without having consumed many calories.
- The gelling action of cellulose when combined with water creates an emulsion, suspending ingredients, making processed food products creamier and thicker than they would be otherwise.
- Cellulose can absorb water and is used as an “anti-caking” agent in shredded and grated cheeses, spice mixes, and powdered drink mixes.
Looks like about.com agrees with Vani on those points too. It’s great that we finally have a consensus on cellulose.
Seriously though, what the hell? Food Babe included four citations in that passage but couldn’t be bothered to cite about.com? There’s literally no reason to skip over that. To paraphrase Mark Crislip, my flabber has been gastered.
September 6, 2012
On December 4, NPR released an article critical of Food Babe’s antics. Some of our Shill Army leaders were mentioned and interviewed for the piece, and by all accounts, it was/is a rousing success. It was so successful, in fact, that the Food Babe herself had to respond with a 5000-word philippic in which she decries ad hominem attacks with her own ad hominem attacks. It’s really a wonderful piece. It delivers an amazing insight into the mind of someone who has no idea how the scientific method works and is too oblivious to be aware of that fact.
After the release of the NPR story, the criticisms of Food Babe came pouring in from all over. The most entertaining came from Bell Plantation, the manufacturers of PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter. Food Babe had written an unflattering review of their product on her page, and they responded in kind. It’s worth the read.
I’d never read the PB2 review before because why? But Bell Plantation’s response intrigued me, so I had to take a look. That’s when I noticed a blurb on aflatoxin that stood out from the rest of the article.
Peanuts May Contain Aflatoxin – The mold that is frequently present in peanuts creates a carcinogen called Aflatoxin. This chemical has been shown to cause liver cancer in developing countries where there is a large consumption of corn, peanuts and grains grown without strict regulation of the quality of soil. Here in the United States, the FDA allows aflatoxin into our food system at varying levels. This is just not something I want to consume on a regular basis, even in small “approved” doses. For people who have had cancer or already have compromised liver function, you should really consider this information. This is why I choose to only eat Jungle Peanuts if I have a choice, because they are grown in an environment and harvested in a way that does not produce this toxin.
I don’t subscribe to woo or anything supernatural, but this block of text connected with me in a spiritual way that I can’t explain. It’s got links throughout. There’s no reason to suspect the links aren’t citations, but I’m thorough. Never half-ass. Always whole-ass. (I don’t remember where I heard that. In the spirit of this article, I’ll just claim it as my own.)
How freaking awesome is this? A lifted passage with an unrelated source inserted right into the middle of it. That takes some real nerve and planning. Seriously, I’m impressed by it. Someone with a life outside of the internet might have missed this. Luckily for everyone but me, I shun the outside world. Digging around for dirt on woo-peddlers is my hobby. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t get on my bad side, charlatans.
August 21, 2013
I’m from the Deep South. Over the 30 years I’ve been on this earth, I’ve probably drunk at least 5000 gallons of sweet tea and countless cups of other hot varieties. I know tea. I love tea. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn I’m mostly comprised of tea. Of course I couldn’t let her trash the nectar of the gods without scrutiny.
91 percent of Celestial Seasonings tea tested had pesticide residues exceeding the U.S. limits. For example, Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Herbal contained 0.26 ppm of propachlor, which is a known carcinogen under California’s Propsition 65.
The “Wellness” tea line was found to contain traces of propargite, also a known carcinogen and developmental toxin. The FDA has already issued two warning letters to Celestial Seasonings in regard to poor quality control.
Teavana tea was tested by an independent lab and 100 percent of it was found to contain pesticides. One tea in particular, Monkey Picked Oolong, contained 23 pesticides. 77 percent of the teas would fail European Union pesticide import standards, and would be banned from import. 62 percent of the teas tested contained traces of endosulfan, a pesticide that has been banned by the U.S., China, the E.U., and 144 other countries because it has been linked to impaired fertility and could harm unborn babies.
“Come on,” you might be thinking. “There’s no way this is copied. There’s a link to the research right at the beginning.”
Have you learned nothing?! Look at this blog post from April 18, 2013
It’s pretty ingenious letting someone else do the research and report on it while Food Babe just inserts random citations throughout a couple months later. Why not just cite the words she copies, or, I don’t know, use different words? I get that scaring the shit out of people and running a business are tiring, but typing words on a screen kind of is the whole business. It also doesn’t end there with the tea.
GET THIS: Many paper tea bags are treated with epichlorohydrin, a compound mainly used in the production of epoxy resins. Considered a potential carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health2 (NIOSH), epichlorohydrin is also used as a pesticide. When epichlorohydrin comes in contact with water, it hydrolyzes to 3-MCPD, which has been shown to cause cancer in animals. It has also been implicated in infertility (it has a spermatoxic effect in male rats) and suppressed immune function.
Now this is ridiculous. Just a few lines above, Vani cites this very article. How can she copy/paste chunks like this and pass them off as her own? I would chalk it up to carelessness, but it obviously isn’t. Just looking at how her version is pieced together is evidence enough that it was a calculated move to borrow from Mr. Mercola’s April 24, 2013 post.
I would venture a guess that Joe wouldn’t be too pleased with plagiarism since his pet project is attempting to expose fraud in the scientific community. Then again…
April 25, 2013
Anyway, Food Babe was curious about how to attack a healthy sweetener and the FDA while shilling for an affiliate whether or not stevia is healthy. I know what that means. It’s time for an investigation!
For those of you that are hearing about stevia for the first time, it is a plant that is typically grown in South America, and while its extract is 200 times sweeter than sugar, it does not raise blood insulin levels. That’s what makes it so popular. However in 1991 the FDA refused to approve this substance for use due to pressure from makers of artificial sweeteners like Sweet n’ Low and Equal (a one billion dollar industry). But in 2008, the FDA approved the use of rebaudioside compounds that were derived from the stevia plant by Coca-Cola (Cargill) and PepsiCo – hmmm doesn’t that sound suspicious? Not until a major food company got involved did stevia become legal, and only after it had been highly processed using a patentable chemical-laden process…so processed that Truvia (Coca-Cola’s branded product) goes through about 40 steps to process the extract from the leaf, relying on chemicals like acetone, methanol, ethanol, acetonitrile, and isopropanol. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens (substances that cause cancer), and none of those ingredients sound like real food, do they?
This is an interesting story, and I’ll admit, it does sound fishy, and shady deals like this probably go down all the time. What Vani fails to mention is that stevia was an unapproved substance throughout pretty much the entire world up until a few years ago. Hell, the European Union just approved it three years ago after placing a ban on it in 1999. But this isn’t the kind of fact-finding mission I’ve undertaken.
There’s colored lines in that thar passage. Here’s why.
Some might argue that I’m being anal, but the copying here is just so unnecessary, and closer look is needed. The green bit is what I find most interesting.
“none of those ingredients sound like real food, do they?”
“I don’t know about you, but when I make a cup of tea, I’ve never used any of those ingredients.”
Weird isn’t it? Vani’s little personal touches aren’t personal at all. Both directly address the reader with some sort of “I’m just a regular Joe” sentiment. Both get the same point across about industrial recipes being somewhat different than homemade foods, and this isn’t even close to the weirdest thing in the article, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Food Babe also apes the structure of Bruce Bradley’s post in the Truvia section of her article. They both offer half-assed explanations of the 40-step process, paying special attention to erythritol and its derivation from GM corn. Following that, “natural flavors” are attacked. At this point, Vani “plagiarizes” herself and uses her favorite phrase “what David Kessler (former head of the FDA) calls a ‘food carnival’ in your mouth.” Seriously, she uses it almost every time she mentions natural flavors or MSG. Google it.
Now onto that really weird part I mentioned.
Why? Why lift this one sentence? It doesn’t make any sense. Food Babe literally couldn’t think of ten original words to say about silica. This one hurt me. Badly. I’ve spent days wracking my brain, trying to understand the thought process that led using this one sentence. I finally had to give up.
This whole debacle couldn’t have revealed itself at a worse time for Vani. There’s so many ways to discredit her terrible advice without calling her ethics into question. Plagiarism would really be a non-issue to me if the plagiarist was confined to the blogosphere. Food Babe has stepped beyond blogging though, and set herself up to be judged more harshly than any random person hammering out rants about their favorite TV show or how chemtrails are killing us all. No, no, no. Food Babe has much bigger plans than that.
- You Won’t Believe Where Silly Putty Is Hiding In Your Food
October 22, 2013 http://foodbabe.com/2013/10/22/sillyputty/
- Are You Eating This Substance That Lines Food Industry Pockets?
- The Truth About PB2 Powdered Peanut Butter
- Do You Know What’s Really In Your Tea?
- Is Stevia Safe?
April 25, 2013 http://foodbabe.com/2013/04/25/stevia-good-or-bad/
- Information on Plagiarism
 Bad clichés are bad, but herpes jokes make me laugh because I’m a man-child.