To her thousands of fans and followers, Vani Hari -- the "Food Babe" blogger -- is a savior, brazenly taking on corporations in the name of better eating as she questions processed-food ingredients and manufacturing methods. But to her critics, she is a misinformed opportunist, seeking publicity at every turn while promoting causes like GMO labeling.
One thing is for sure: As she bashes mainstream food marketers, including Kraft Foods Group and Subway, Ms. Hari is emerging as a powerful brand herself, routinely appearing on national TV, where she is often presented as a food expert. In doing so, the Babe is positioned to capitalize on her growing fame with a burgeoning business model that includes making money by referring her loyal readers to several organic and GMO-free food brands via her website.
Under the program, known as affiliate marketing, she often posts editorial content praising these small brands, including links to their sites where readers can purchase the goods. She gets a cut of some of the transactions, according to the rules explained on some of her partners' websites. Ms. Hari also sells "eating guides" for $17.99 a month and charges for speaking appearances.
How Ms. Hari turned a food blog into a full-time business speaks to the rising power of food activists, whose growing clout with everyday consumers recently prompted Sanford C. Bernstein to label the trend a risk for the packaged-food sector.
Advocate or entrepreneur?
While plenty of food bloggers sell ads and use affiliate marketing and sponsored posts to make money, Ms. Hari gets some of the greatest attention. As a result, she has emerged as a recognizable -- if polarizing -- figure in the food world and beyond.
Ms. Hari does not hold a nutrition or science degree, which leads some critics to label her an opportunist. "Historically, consumer advocacy has come from nonprofits," said Maureen Ogle, an author and historian who has written about the food and beverage industry, in an email. "But the Babe isn't an advocate. She's an entrepreneur who clearly, obviously, is only in this for her own profit."
Ms. Hari, who left what she said was a lucrative management-consulting job in late 2012 to pursue full-time activism and blogging, responded in an interview that "I'm not doing this to make money." She added: "This is my life. This is my passion. This is my calling. There is no way I would put myself on the line like I do because of money. This is all about what I've learned, and I have to tell everyone."
But as Ms. Hari attacks mainstream food brands, she is drawing the the ire of some registered dietitians and food scientists who say she lacks the credentials to speak with authority.
Bloggers like her "know enough to sound credible, but they don't know the real science [or] how to interpret peer-reviewed research to fully understand the issues that they might be preaching about," said Julie Upton, a registered dietitian who runs a popular nutrition blog called Appetite for Health. "I stay awake at night worried that my profession is going to become a hobby because of these people."
Ms. Hari countered that "I've never said I was a scientist or a nutritionist," but "I don't think you need to have those degrees to be intellectually honest, to be able to research, to be able to present ideas."
It began as a hobby
Ms. Hari, 35, began making health a priority more than 10 years ago after her poor diet landed her in the hospital, she says in her bio on her website. She launched her blog in April 2011, describing the endeavor in the bio as a venture that started as a way to "share my healthy lifestyle with friends and family. Little did I know at the time that this blog would change the world." She continued that "I used my newfound inspiration for living a healthy life to drive my energy into investigating what is really in our food, how is it grown and what chemicals are used in its production. I had to teach myself everything."
In her previous career as an independent management consultant, she most recently did work for Bank of America, she said. Earlier in her career she was employed by Accenture, according to her LinkedIn page, which states that she has a degree in computer science from the University of North Carolina.
As Ms. Hari pursues her self-described mission of being "the person to carry the voice of millions," she has also taken steps to form a viable business. She established Food Babe LLC on Aug. 1, 2011, according to filings with the North Carolina Secretary of State's office. While her principal office is in Charlotte, her business is incorporated in Delaware, which is known for business-friendly regulations.
Ms. Hari declined to answer a question about why she incorporated in Delaware. She also declined to reveal her annual revenue from the site, including how many food guides she has sold or how many brands with which she has business relationships. "This is information that is not important to my activism and my work," she said, noting that she discloses partner brands when she mentions them in posts. "In order to be an activist you do need funds to do your work, and this is the most honest way that I think I can do that," she said.
Part of her business model appears to be rooted in her affiliate-marketing partnerships. One of the companies she has recently plugged on her site is called Green Polka Dot Box, which sells home-delivered natural, organic and non-GMO foods. The company's affiliate partners can earn 30% of the company's annual $49.95 per-person membership fee for each person referred, plus $2 for every food purchase that person makes as long as they are a member, according to terms of the program listed on the company's website.
Ms. Hari declined to disclose the details of her arrangement with Green Polka Dot Box, but said that she is not currently working with them. The company declined comment, citing confidentiality agreements.
Another company she has plugged in editorial posts is Nutiva, which sells organic "superfood" such as hemp and chia seeds. The company's affiliate-marketing program promises a 10% cut of sales on referrals, according to its website. The company did not return calls for comment.
The FTC requires
The Federal Trade Commission requires that bloggers such as Ms. Hari disclose paid endorsements "clearly and conspicuously" on their websites.
Ms. Hari typically discloses her commercial partnerships at the tail end of her posts. Her disclosure states that "posts may contain affiliate links for products Food Babe has approved and researched herself. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same (or at a discount if a special code is offered) and Food Babe will automatically receive a small referral fee. Your support is crucial because it helps fund this blog and helps us continue to spread the word."
An FTC spokeswoman declined to comment when asked if the disclosure met the "clear and conspicuous" threshold. Linda Goldstein, an ad lawyer and partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, said the rules are subjective and judged on a case-by-case basis. She said the FTC might favor a stand-alone message that does not include extraneous language, such as how the blog reader's support is crucial.
Ms. Hari's eating guides include meal calendars, recipes and grocery shopping lists with "approved brands." Another revenue opportunity comes from speaking appearances, according to her website, which instructs viewers to inquire with her about availability and rates.
"I do have to support myself and I am very transparent about how I do that," Ms. Hari said. "I don't just put ads on my site to put ads. If I wanted to make a lot of money I could put a thousand ads on my site." She added: "I can't tell you how many people I turn away every single day. I only work with the brands I wholeheartedly support and they support my mission."
Ms. Upton -- whose site uses sponsored posts -- did not disparage Ms. Hari for making money. "Running these blogs is not cheap … they have to be making some money somewhere," she said.