'Nowadays, a food crisis starts when the Food Babe is on line two'

'Pseudoscience-busting' blogger behind SciBabe talks food science for meme lovers

By Maggie Hennessy

- Last updated on GMT

Do scientists need to get down from their ivory towers and try to make food science more 'approachable and easy to digest'?
Do scientists need to get down from their ivory towers and try to make food science more 'approachable and easy to digest'?

Related tags Food Food science Nutrition

In an era of shorter consumer attention spans and heightened suspicion about food science, the packaged food and beverage industry can take a page from the world of pop culture and bring food science down to earth with humor and proactive transparency.

If the anti-GMO lobby has taught us anything in the past few years, it’s that the way information is packaged is important, Yvette D’Entremont, a chemist and the  “pseudoscience-busting​” blogger behind SciBabe​, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“It wasn’t that people didn’t want the accurate information that the science community was giving out about GMOs,”​ D’Entremont said. “It’s that anti-GMO information came in an attractive little package, and it was palatable. ‘Want us to tell you about safer food?’ That’s how they’ve presented themselves—punchy and to the point.”

The ivory tower of science

Mark Hughes, president of food ingredient marketing firm Anderson Partners, said that GMOs in particular illustrate the difficulties of effectively communicating food science to the public.

“In the scientific community they talk about GMOs as helping fulfill the need to produce more food to feed a hungry planet,” ​Hughes said. “What’s missing is, ‘OK, what’s the benefit to me, the consumer, when I’m at the shelf in the grocery store?’ All they see is one label that says ‘no GMOs’ and one that doesn’t.”

Self-styled 'SciBabe' Yvette D’Entremont holds a B.A. in theatre, a B.S. in chemistry, and an MSc in forensic science with a concentration in biological criminalistics.

That’s due in part to poor branding, he noted. Being described as 'genetically modified' doesn’t sit well with consumers who are increasingly seeking out natural, closer-to-earth food and beverage products. Moreover, the ongoing battle over federally versus state-mandated labeling has shifted the argument to one of labeling rather than one of the science of GMOs, he said.

But it’s also due to what Hughes dubs a big mistake in the industry: using science from an ivory tower.

“By that we mean sometimes the industry is too heavy handed with science, almost to the point of saying, ‘I’m a scientist, you wouldn’t understand,’ instead of making science approachable and easy to digest,” ​he said.

Time to climb down from the ivory tower?

In what D’Entremont calls “the ADHD era,”​ consumers increasingly want their information—whether that’s news headlines or entertainment—in punchy, funny little doses. Much as comedians Penn and Teller have tackled pseudoscience and paranormal beliefs with subversive humor on their Showtime docu-series “Bullshit,” and animated Comedy Central series “South Park” has addressed everything from racist rhetoric to politics “using a bunch of fourth graders,”​ D’Entremont said the science community could benefit from a little more accessibility and humor.

“It’d be great if we could figure out memes saying here’s a bit of information that debunks a food myth, is funny, will get traction and engage people,” ​she said. (See how “The Daily Show” did it here​).  

D’Entremont’s own rise to fame came not from a meme but rather a lengthy “Gawker” article​ discrediting activist blogger The Food Babe through science. (The piece has amassed some 4.6 million unique views since April). But she noted that humor was a key piece to keeping readers’ attention.

“The ‘Gawker’ piece is long and there’s a lot of science in there, but there’s also a joke in almost every paragraph,” ​she said. “I never waited too long until the next punch line.”

Always on the back foot?

But whether it’s GMOs, azodicarbonamide (“azo”), lean finely textured beef (“pink slime”) or MSG, it seems that the food evangelists often get to tell their stories first—raising public concerns over their purported impact on the health and safety of them and their children. Such skepticism has put the industry in a seemingly constant state of reacting.

Yvette D’Entremont
Yvette D’Entremont: “People forget there’s a human being behind the food. They think it’s just a big corporate head. But the scientists and chemists tasting it are making sure product is going to be not just palatable but safe. And they eat it and feed it to their children, too.”

“Communication relating to food science, especially when it comes to the big food manufacturers, has been totally reactionary,”​ Hughes said. “We have a running joke that it used to be a food crisis was when a factory or plant called and said a ton of ground beef has tested positive for E. Coli. Nowadays, a food crisis starts when the Food Babe is on line two.”

Evangelists have real, powerful concerns about feeding this food to their kids

Having a strategy for responding to and engaging with the Food Babes on line two is critical to building and retaining trust with consumers, Hughes said.

“We’ve seen a lot of research pointing to the influence of evangelists and opinion-driven advocates. Consumers trust and listen to them,” ​he said. “So if you appear defensive or non-transparent, whatever you say will be heard with suspicion.”

And it starts with listening to the evangelists’ concerns.

“These people have real concerns about feeding this food to their kids. That’s a powerful dynamic. You have to understand why they’re concerned, so you can engage and speak back, not from a defensive position, but from an empathetic position. Then the science can help you address it.”

A big part of that strategy is being swift in the response and using same media and channels being used by the activists.

“Speak back in the environment they’re speaking to,” he said. “The same consumers who trust and listen to them are doing so on the same social media platforms. So that’s were you have to go to reach audience that evangelists have.”

Speaking back means relaxing company social media policies

D’Entremont said that if the industry could also see this increasing quest for information not as a nuisance but rather an opportunity to showcase the human element of the food industry, consumers might be more apt to listen.

“People forget there’s a human being behind the food. They think it’s just a big corporate head,” ​she said. “But the scientists and chemists tasting it are making sure product is going to be not just palatable but safe. And they eat it and feed it to their children, too.”

And while social media is key to telling those stories and engaging the increasingly curious consumer, it will undoubtedly require companies to loosen up a little.

“Especially the big companies should be willing to get rid of social media policies that handcuff their employees. Go ahead and tell people to talk about their business practices. That’d be hugely helpful in showing that there are human beings behind it.”

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Food should be natural not genetically modified

Posted by Mike,

I am a food scientist and I know this business very well. Food scientists have to keep their jobs they have to work with chemicals to preserve food, chemicals are cheap, packaging is expensive, FDA does not require long term human studies on chemicals and preservatives. In the scheme of things all processed foods are the cause of many health related issues.

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What are you hiding??

Posted by John grocowski,

The problem is transparency period. We have a very serious health crisis here in America with overweight, obesity, gluten nonsense, ADHD, autism, huge increases in asthmas and food allergies and a host of other growing health problems. I’m a firm believer in ‘you are what you eat’. There are also some things in food science that just doesn’t sit well and seems messed up and big AG wants me to eat it without transparency? And you patent freaking seeds???? You have a patented product used as a descaling agent being sprayed on my food?? You lace everything in processed foods with HFCS?? We have a corrupt FDA (who test nothing according to their OWN website), an EPA that can’t make up their minds what is good or not good. We have highly credible scientist with decades more experience then SCIBABE (BTW who’s website seems idle with no activity) that write papers explaining the dangers of GMO,s and many food chemicals. With so much debate in the scientific community (you folks can’t make up your minds as well) and looking at all the sick unhealthy people around you then you come to the conclusion that nature’s ‘virgin way’ is the best way to consume food. And of course if you goes this route, you naturally start to feel better and then you ask yourself why is that? So why even trust the food science of chemicals. As far as producing enough food for the world? That is nonsense. It’s all about access. American’s throw away roughly 40% of the food grown and 80% are overweight with a third obese. What does that tell you? We are growing and consuming way too much food. FoodBabe has tapped into an audience that is sick of big AG, the highly processed garage food and tired of being unhealthy and how the food industry treats animals and our lands. So until big food cleans up its act and opens it’s doors, they can go screw. My local farm has open houses, they welcome me with open arms, they show and explain to me everything that I want to know. I can bring my camera, take videos, etc. Monsanto? I can’t get past the security house never mind a simple tour that is open to the public.

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You got it all wrong...

Posted by ioana ungureanu,

Science is science, man, it's not entertainment. It's not religion either. It's not soccer. Very often science is not obvious and is not intuitive. So stop asking scientists to present complex concepts in such a way 5 yo can understand. Well, molecules are like Thomas the train, sometimes are accidents and it's o-ho and there is boom and then the train is clickadik again.

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