Ryan was “simply being polite in his response to a very impassioned statement regarding fluoride in the water,” a spokesperson told Mother Jones in a statement last week. “Of course he supports continuing to fluoridate our water and believes fully in its health benefits.” But his initial response—and the fact that he was there at all—speak to a delicate balancing act at the heart of his political identity.
The 45-year-old Ryan, who announced his candidacy for president last Thursday after years of flirting with a bid for higher office, has cultivated a national reputation as a champion of the Rust Belt, arguing that to take back Washington, Democrats must listen to the “70-year-old Teamster” in places like his native Mahoning Valley. But Ryan’s politics goes beyond picket lines; he wrote a book about how meditation can help “recapture the American spirit,” and has talked up his plans to win the “yoga vote” in 2020. And his personal interest in mindfulness and nutrition has brought him into the orbit of a pair of controversial health theorists, Hyman and wellness blogger Vani Hari, who have taken aim not just at familiar foes like fast food, but pillars of public-health policy. Ryan has blurbed their books, joined them at events, and highlighted their work in his own writings.
Perhaps the most famous name in Ryan’s circle is Hari, better known as the Food Babe. A former financial consultant, Hari began writing about food in earnest about a decade ago, and quickly blew up, turning her small blog into a media empire with two books and more than a million followers on Facebook. Hari’s big idea is that everything is full of chemicals and that those chemicals are bad for you. To fight back, she organizes pressure campaigns against restaurant chains to get them to change (and disclose) their ingredients. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Hari interrupted former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s speech to heckle him about genetically modified foods. This has made her a hero in certain circles—and one of her biggest fans is Ryan.