New research helps explain why so many refer to the Internet the “Web of Deception.”
According the the Pew Research Institute, more than 60 percent of Americans search the Internet for health, nutrition and fitness information. But a new study from University of Florida researchers, reported in the journal Decision Support Systems, suggests that many top results of Google nutrition-related searches can turn up results with information that’s often misleading—or even harmful to your health.
The Florida researchers reported that 65% of consumers use the Internet to search for health information and among those, 60% say that their search results influenced their health behaviors. What’s more 46% of those using Internet health information don’t share this with their healthcare providers. When the researchers analyzed thousands of medical topics for first-page results in search engines, they found that food and nutrition is a category that produces more low quality results than medical diagnoses and treatments.
There are many reasons why the Internet is risky when it comes to finding reliable nutrition information. First, anyone can create a blog and platform on the Internet and dispel nutrition advice and based on how popular the content of the blog becomes, it will rise in search based on popularity. Many times, bloggers use provocative headlines and write sensationalized copy in order to draw more readers to their posts, and thereby driving up their ranking in search results. Just because WellnessMamma.com comes up as a top post when you search for nutrition information about coconut oil doesn’t mean she’s an expert in the topic.
Search just about any hot nutrition topic or issue and what often happens is that the most reliable, evidence-based nutrition information is often buried deep in the search results while the most questionable information ranks higher. In light of this, use the guidelines below to help find reliable and evidence-based nutrition facts to help you make the best food choices.
Five ways to Get Better Internet-Based Nutrition Information
Look for peer-reviewed references: Almost every nutrition article we write on our blog, we provide the references and links to the abstracts or full research articles, when available. Of course, there’s a big difference in the quality of research with human clinical trials being the gold standard while animal studies or laboratory analyses don’t carry the same clout.
Use MedlinePlus to search for health and nutrition topics: The authors of this study suggest consumers use evidence-based sites like MedlinePlus, from the National Institutes of Health, to start their searches on a medical/nutrition topic. Instead of using Google or another search engine start your search with the most reputable source. Another reputable option is Health on the Net (HON), which is a nonprofit based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Check the the writer’s bio: A quick search about the writer can turn up all kinds of useful information. You can see if she/he holds a research or clinical position at a hosptial or university; or you can see if they have degrees that make them qualified to be able to provide the most accurate information. You can also see the relationships the writer may have with corporations that may influence his or her point of views on various nutrition issues. For example, a writer who consults with Monsanto or DuPont may have a strong pro-GMO stance.
Use .gov sites: We have a lot of wonderful government resources on the Internet that have accurate information, so use them. As a dietitian, I turn to Health and Human Services, FDA, USDA and many other government-based sites when I’m researching topics.
One study or source isn’t enough: Credible, peer-reviewed science needs to be replicated several times–and from various research labs–before you change eating habits based on the results. Often times, Internet stories fail to note that the study was preliminary or the results have only been found from one laboratory. Unless there is consistency in results with several studies, it’s probably not worth making changes based on the results.
Be a healthy skeptic: Probably the best piece of nutrition advice I can give to anyone is to be a critical thinker and if something sounds too good to be true, know that it’s 99% likely to be a sham. The Internet today is full of modern-day charlatans that may have degrees or even TV shows, but they too can have hidden agendas, and may have a financial incentive to mislead consumers.