The Luxury of Golden Juicers and Smelly Sandwich Shops

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You may have never heard of a woman who calls herself, The Food Babe. Her name is Vani Hari and she’s really only a big thing in certain circles of food-privileged conscious Facebook women, but you probably remember a big blow-up last year when she “exposed” Subway for having yoga mat chemical in their bread. There was a big collective, “So, that’s what that smell is!” heard around the world. If you’ve ever been in a Subway, you know exactly what I’m talking about. No disrespect meant to Subway — my kids love the subs. But seriously, what is that smell?

The Subway Yoga Mat Chemical Scare of 2014 put The Food Babe on the map and helped her brilliant online business model take off — which is to find a scary sounding chemical in a big company’s product and freak people out that it’s going to shorten their 80-plus year life expectancy. Then, shake down petition the company to remove it and get lots of new followers and shoppers to the online store. It’s a magical formula, really. The problem is, she either doesn’t understand science or she’s getting her information from sketchy sources like Natural News (another online joint with a big store). And scientists and science advocates are sick of it. I mean, they have had it with her nonsense and they are coming out swinging.

The first big salvo fired was from a chemist with a fantastic gift for profanity named Yvette d’Entremont, otherwise known The SciBabe, which one assumes is her mocking poor Vani. SciBabe’s article, titled The Food Babe Blogger is Full of Sh*t, appeared on Gawker and quickly went viral. It was an epic, hilarious takedown that impacted Food Babe’s popularity for, oh… about a minute. Her followers, The Food Babe Army, adore her so it’s going to take a lot for her to lose them. There’s a new book out, however, that may actually cause some of her soldiers to defect permanently this time — if they’re willing to read it.

A book called The Fear Babe, Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, is scheduled to be released just in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving, a season where Americans give thanks for their abundance by consuming massive amounts of candy and casseroles. Written by science communicator, Kavin Senapathy and co-authors, Marco Draco and Mark Alsip, it breaks down nearly every questionable Food Babe claim — and there are a lot of them so it’s a rather long book. From aspartame to yoga mat chemicals to flu shots and sugar — they address her bad science in meticulous detail — sometimes too much detail because I caught myself making a mental grocery list whenever there was a page with chemical formulas. The detail is necessary though and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the old Food Babe is playing fast and loose with scientific “fact” and more than likely making a pile of money doing it.

One could almost start to feel sorry for Vani Hari because it’s got to be humiliating to be called out like that in public. Almost but not quite. If it were just her getting some attention and making money off of a little corporate blackmail, I doubt anyone would particularly care. After all, those corporations are presumably run by grown-ups who’ve had enough high school assemblies to know how to handle bullies.

It’s also not that tragic if a bunch of people with extra money want to spend it on food that makes them feel daisy-fresh clean on the inside. Hopefully, they’re grateful for the immense privilege of turning their noses up at perfectly safe food. In this writer’s opinion, it’s the fact that she uses the little bit of power she has in her corner of the Internet to prop up the cancer quacks who prey on desperate people, that makes her fair game for a scientific smackdown.

In a section called “Ring a Ring O’ Roses” (have I been saying that wrong my whole life?), the authors address the support Hari gives to alternative cancer treatments. The Food Babe does not give out health advice without disclaimers but she is complicit in the promotion of potentially dangerous cancer therapies by recommending doctors and clinics with questionable reputations such as the Burzynski Clinic and Gerson Institute. According to the book, Gerson endorses a sometimes fatal drug called Laetrile, which is not FDA approved. Gerson Therapy also involves “juicing” as part of the treatment. And as luck would have it, the authors point out, you can go to the Food Babe’s online store and buy a juicer for $2495 (that’s not a typo) that, in her words, “is highly recommended for the Gerson Therapy.”

The authors go into details on the Gerson quackery and the real life and death consequences to the people who have followed it. Perhaps the Food Babe would be more sympathetic if she stuck to her corporate targets instead of aiding and abetting cancer-cure predators. Because, she’s got rabidly loyal fans, one of whom could make a life-threatening error in judgment by following her recommendations.

Even if you’ve never heard of The Food Babe, the book is still worth picking up as a good health and diet reference. The authors do a very good job at dispelling many fears and myths that have seeped into our culture about the food we eat because, as the author of the book’s forward points out:

“In all of human history, the food supply has never been more abundant, diverse, or safe. Think of your last meal. Many in the world today will live a full life without eating something that good.”

The Fear Babe is an important reminder for us this holiday season to have gratitude that we live in a society where $2500 (hopefully gold-plated) juicers exist and that we have such luxurious problems as worrying about what’s in the bread (or the reason for that weird smell) at a sandwich shop.

Homeopathy: Dead Sharks and Hufflepuff Meds

So, I had the piece I’d written about my mom and alternative medicine go up on Huffington Post last week and it really irritated some people which upset me at first but I got over it in about 24 hours. Many people missed the point and zeroed in on my lack of understanding of homeopathy and argued that shark cartilage was not considered homeopathy. Evidently, these don’t count:

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(Yes. I am this petty.)

One of the homeopaths who said shark cartilage wasn’t homeopathic sells it on her website. They had all sorts of arguments like, “well, it’s not indicated for cancer” (except by the guy who wrote that book  I guess). Or then, “she shouldn’t have self-prescribed.”  Then why is it sold over the counter? They all agreed that I don’t understand homeopathy. And guess what? I probably don’t and- I DON’T CARE. (Yes, I’ve read up on the concept and it sounds stupid unless you think water cures everything.)

As far as I’m concerned, homeopathy falls into the same category as all unproven supplements and herbal “medicine” and everything else under the alternative umbrella. I think it’s all bullshit but I’m not trying to ban it. If people want to buy magic water and pretend it does something, then by all means, they should knock themselves out.  But why not label it correctly?  Slate had an awesome article about homeopathy the other day where chemist and author, Yvette d’Entremont, makes this  great observation:

My biggest concern with homeopathy is the labeling. I’m a scientist and science writer who wants consumers to understand what they’re buying, but what do any of these homeopathy labels mean? “200C.” “10x.” “3C.” “Humulus lupulus.” “Arsenicum alb.” “Natrum Muriaticum.” What language are they even written in?

This sounds like it should be sold to Hufflepuffs in a Harry Potter apothecary  instead of to nonfiction people at Walgreen’s.

I had several points that I clearly failed to make in my HuffPo piece. One, is that the FDA is considering applying truth in advertising laws to homeopathic products like it does to other things you buy and put in your body, as they should. Because, if the company who makes Kind Bars has to remove the bar’s “healthy” label then it’s not unreasonable for corporations that sell homeopathy to remove the “medicine” label from their products if they’re just water. Or the FDA could require them to at least make their label comprehensible, especially if the products contain alcohol or heavy metals.

The second point is that alternative medicine is held up as an entity that is all peaceful incense and tinkling music and could never be motivated by something as ugly as money. It’s not. It’s a very big industry. And alternative medicine, including homeopathy, is weakly regulated so it’s able to make all sorts of ridiculous, unproven, and sometimes dangerous claims. So, while the FDA is busy involving itself in whether or not mayonnaise is mayonnaise without the egg, the quack brigade is getting away with selling fake cures for everything from ADHD to cancer.

And the final point I failed to make is that there is a lot of pressure put on people with cancer to fight and survive. My mom was very much a Type A personality who took dying of cancer as a personal failure. Somehow, torturing herself and “fighting” until the very end made her feel like she wasn’t giving up. Alternative medicine takes advantage of that desperate pressure to fight and profits nicely from it.

I know that I’m Monday morning quarterbacking about how everything went down with my mom. I guess I just look at how hospice was able to come in and make her life as peaceful and comfortable as possible. I wish end-of-life care was something that we hadn’t been afraid to discuss. Or that going into hospice care wasn’t considered giving up because we might have had more time and she could have had a more gentle passing.

As far as the homeopathic shark cartilage nonsense goes, it sort of makes me laugh to see how much is sold on the Internet after getting yelled at that it wasn’t homeopathy. Then again, it’s not that funny since sharks are being slaughtered for no reason. (Well, I guess one shark could go a long way since homeopathy is mostly water.) Or it could be that sharks aren’t being slaughtered at all (except they are). They could be selling Jell-O water in those bottles.  How would we know?

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The Heartlessness of Alternative Medicine

If my mother were alive today, I’m sure that she and I would be arguing about my Ecomodernist position. She would be anti-GMO, anti-nuclear energy, would probably have a homeopathic doctor and a pantry full of expensive supplements. She was a smart, successful early feminist who also loved her pseudoscience. (She consulted Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs for parenting and dating advice.) Unfortunately, she’s not alive because colon cancer killed her when she was in her 40s and her anti-science world view sped the process along for her.

In 1996, she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer with full liver involvement. Her prognosis was terminal but because she was only 47, her oncologist thought that chemotherapy was worth trying in order to buy us some time. She did 3 months of a conventional chemotherapy drug called 5-FU and then made the decision to move to alternative therapies when the tumors weren’t responding instead of going with her oncologist’s recommendation of a new drug called irinotecan.

I’m sure the outcome would have been the same whether she had gone the conventional or the alternative route. She was going to die no matter what we did. What I do know is that the next 3 months of our lives were pure hell and they didn’t have to be.

For the first few weeks after she gave up on conventional medicine, she went the quack route with a doctor in Houston named Stanislaw Burzynski. That story deserves its own blog post but in a nut shell, this clinic took her money, put her on an unproven drug (not even indicated for colon cancer) that was pumped continuously through a port in her chest, then told me I was killing her when I talked her into leaving after 3 weeks. She was dark yellow (in liver failure) and retaining so much water from the drug that another doctor had to cut into her skin and drain the fluid. She was clearly dying and I needed to get her back home while she could still ride in a car. I was young at the time so having a doctor tell me I was killing my mother was devastating.

The next few weeks were a new kind of hell but this time filled with visits to a holistic nutritionist, Whole Foods (of course), and GNC (supplement, vitamin store). She was taking piles of supplements while she could still swallow. She became convinced that shark cartilage would save her because of a ridiculous book by a biochemist named William Lane. I don’t think the shark cartilage hurt her but it’s criminal to me that sharks are being slaughtered so that someone can make money selling nonsense to desperate, dying people.

The holistic nutritionist was a very nice guy named Doug Kauffman who has evidently built up quite a business on the idea that fungus causes everything. He prescribed vitamin injections and a diet of fruits, vegetables, and tofu in a blender since swallowing was becoming difficult. The only ill will I really harbor toward this guy is that he shook his head sadly and pulled that whole, “If only you’d come to me sooner…” routine which basically lets him off the hook but allows him to keep selling stuff that doesn’t work. (I also happen to believe that a person who is dying should be encouraged to eat what appeals to them. I’d rather die eating a chocolate eclair than a spinach shake.)

The last 3 months of her life and every penny she had were wasted on the false hope of unproven, holistic, and natural treatments. She didn’t want to take real medication because she was afraid it was toxic to her failing liver, so she suffered a great deal and became irrational and angry toward the end. One of the books or doctors gave her the idea that she should only drink distilled water and if she suspected I’d made her smoothie with regular ice cubes, she’d scream at me. She also would scream at me if I slept or if she smelled food cooking. The pain she was in was intolerable so I’m sure she had no idea what she was doing.

All of that was because she wasn’t being cared for by a real doctor with years of medical school and experience. She was thrashing around in desperation, clinging to any shred of hope, and in the process found plenty of people to give her false hope for the right price. What I found is that the alternative medicine industry has used fake science to brand itself as a kinder, gentler, natural way of treating the human body while painting traditional medicine as heartless and money-grubbing. The reality is though, it’s the other way around.

Two weeks before she died I called her original oncologist who put me in touch with a local hospice. Her hospice team swept in and within hours had her pain, sleep, anger, and anxiety under control with the right medication. She spent the last 2 weeks of her life lucid and relatively peaceful. We were able to talk and enjoy her 48th birthday right before she died because she was being treated by experienced people with effective medicine.

So, which is the heartless one? Traditional or Alternative?

Warmly, Amy

Thank you for reading a personal story. My mom is still my hero. I forgive her getting suckered but I have not forgiven her for my outfit or the bangs. And no, I can’t sing just because I’m a Taurus.

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