Are Corporations Putting Feathers in Your Food?

The Food Babe’s disgusting claims are baloney.

Vani Hari during the Democratic National Convention.
Vani Hari, the Food Babe, during the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 5, 2012, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I couldn’t believe there was beaver’s ass in my vanilla ice cream, coal tar in my mac and cheese, yoga mat and shoe rubber in my bread,” says Vani Hari, also known as the Food Babe. That’s why she started blogging about food additives, she explains in the introduction to her new book, The Food Babe Way. I can’t believe it either. But that would be because none of it is true.

There is no coal tar in mac and cheese, and there never was, even before Hari led her Food Baby army on a crusade to get Kraft to remove tartrazine, a yellow dye, from its products. Bread does not contain crumbled-up pieces of yoga mat and shoe rubber. And there really isn’t any beaver’s ass in your ice cream cone, though it’s the Food Babe way to tell you there is at every turn. I counted more than 60 references to beaver secretions on her blog, and it appears as No. 10 on her book’s list of “The Sickening 15.”

Hari tirelessly reminds her blog readers that the next time they take licks of vanilla ice cream or spoonfuls of strawberry oatmeal, “there’s a chance you’ll be swirling secretions from a beaver’s anal glands around in your mouth.” It surely drives traffic: Tell me you wouldn’t click on a link to “Do You Eat Beaver Butt?” She is referring to castoreum, which is indeed extracted from a pair of sacs found on the rear end of a beaver, though not from the anal glands. Castoreum has been used in unguents and medicines for more than 2,000 years, but the Food Babe was appalled to discover the Food and Drug Administration considers castoreum to be not gross but GRAS—“generally recognized as safe” for both food and pharmaceutical uses.

While in low concentrations castoreum reputedly tastes of vanilla with a hint of raspberry, I’ll admit I’ve never tasted it. Not because I’m particularly disgusted by the source—I eat animal products and am inordinately fond of the fermented genitalia of Theobroma cacao—but because of its scarcity and cost. Enough castoreum extract to replace the vanilla in a half-gallon of ice cream would cost $120. Worldwide, less than 500 pounds of castoreum is harvested annually from beaver pelts, compared with the more than 20 million pounds of vanilla extracted from the ovaries of Vanilla planifolia orchids each year. Perfumers, not ice cream manufacturers, are the real market for castoreum. So while beaver secretions just might be in the expensive perfume you dabbed on your pulse points or in the aftershave you splashed on your face—did you just touch that with your hands, yuck—rest easy, there is no chance that the pint of ice cream you picked up at the store contains it. Not at the price you paid for it.

The dyes that Hari was so eager to have removed from Kraft products, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, are really called coal tar dyes—not because they contain coal tar, but because a century ago similar dyes were made from chemicals extracted from coal tar. Today they can be made from sustainable plant sources. Are they any more or less hazardous when we imagine they are made from materials extracted from green plants grown under sunny, blue skies, rather than from a sticky, black mess sucked from deep underground? No, but as she does with castoreum, Hari ranks them “high on [her] upchuck meter” not because of their actual source or use, but because, well, oil sludge. Gross.

I have some shocking news, too. Did you know that oxidane, a major component of human urine, is added to coffee beans to enhance the aroma? Disgusting! Sorry if I made you pour your espresso down the drain. What I really should have said is that most people use water, whose formal chemical name is oxidane—and which indeed is the main component of urine—to brew coffee, its steam efficiently conveying the smell to your nose. Not funny? You would be right to think I’m being deliberately deceptive, mocking, even, by using an unfamiliar name for water and linking a food item with a bodily fluid that you wouldn’t think of drinking, and you’d be right to be peeved at me. It’s not amusing to browbeat people in this way, even less funny when you are a food company, reliant on public perception of cleanliness to stay in business.

In her book and on her blog, Hari plays this game of malicious metonymy again and again, leveraging common motifs of disgust, such as excrement and body parts, all the while deliberately confusing the source and uses of material with the molecules themselves. She wants you to be aghast that the same chemical used to stabilize the foam in yoga mats, azodicarbonamide, is used to stabilize bread dough, also a foam. Or to be horrified that L-cysteine, added to bread dough to make it easier to handle, is extracted from chicken feathers, or worse yet, human hair. I admit this last example sounds incredibly gross. But L-cysteine is a common, naturally occurring amino acid, and it’s already present in the flour and in the human body. The commercial version is a white crystalline material, soluble in water, with not a feather remnant or stray hair to be found.

Should we add azodicarbonamide to commercial bread dough? It can cause respiratory issues when inhaled, which is one reason it is banned in the European Union. Is it ethical to expose workers to it whether they are making yoga mats or bread? These are good questions to ask about any food additive, natural or not. But don’t let the Food Babe distract you from asking the right questions with middle school–style rumors about the cafeteria ladies—or large food corporations—putting feathers or yoga mats in the food. She is being as deceptive as I was with the oxidane in your coffee.

If Hari’s trademark magnifying glass shifted its focus off beaver butts and yoga mats and onto what happens to molecules as they react in the body, it might be easier to understand what questions to ask. When a chemical goes to work in the body, it meets its fate stripped of whatever packaging it came in, separated from its fellow molecules. No black, tarry stuff is clinging to tartrazine when a digestive enzyme swoops down on it to dismantle it for potentially useful fragments. Nor is any remnant of an organically grown carrot to be found in the active site of the enzyme that converts beta-carotene to vitamin A. Beta-carotene, Hari’s preferred natural coloring, these days is generally made synthetically, not extracted from carrots at all, and is known to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Begin with a focus on these interactions and the metabolites they produce, and leave out of it whether the salicylic acid was synthesized in a lab or extracted from willow bark or from secretions squeezed from a beaver’s castor sac.

The Food Babe is a business, just like Kraft, and one that is far less grounded in science—see her infamous microwave post and the now disappeared post about the airlines craftily adding nitrogen to the air in planes. Frankly, if Hari were really so worried about animal butts in the food supply, I imagine she wouldn’t have enjoyed this meal quite so much—when you eat shrimp tails, you are eating a shrimp’s anus, secretions and all. But beaver butt brings in advertising dollars and sells books, and that keeps the Food Babe in business.

Here’s the real rub. I don’t disagree with the Food Babe about many things, from the overproliferation of processed foods to the need for fuller disclosure of ingredient lists. I bake my own bread, from yeast, water, flour, and salt—no extra L-cysteine added except what rubs off from my hands as I knead it. I religiously put on my reading glasses to read labels; have been known to brave a restaurant kitchen to find out what is in my dessert; and would be horrified to serve a vegan guest an animal-derived product, even in the minuscule amounts present in flavorings or colorants. And like Hari, I don’t think that just because something is natural, it’s safe to eat. It is just that I prefer to focus on the real chemistry behind it all, not the beaver butts the Food Babe is waving in my face.