By: nabeela khan
December 22 2023
Representative image. (Source: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd via Reuters Connect)
Scroll through popular media platforms and you will come across posts, videos, and pictures either alarming you about your food choices or assuring you that certain food products are better for health than others. For example, you may have read online that multigrain cookies are healthier or unrefined sugar is better suited than table sugar. But sugar is sugar, experts say.
Recurring misleading narratives about food, nutritional choices, consumption, and cooking have gained such traction over the years that they often leave us wondering what’s even healthy.
According to the report by the Changing Markets Foundation published in November 2023, nearly a million social media posts have spread misinformation about alternative proteins and vegan diets. It analyzed over 285 million digital posts mostly on X (formerly Twitter), and misinformation about meat and dairy appeared in a million digital posts over 14 months (June 2022 to July 2023). The report also pointed out that self-claimed wellness influencers drive engagement on such posts.
A combination of these variables resulted in 2023 being the year social media was inundated with health misinformation trends more than ever before. Logically Facts debunked the major narratives; and analyzed their driving factors.
The presence of sugar in food and packaged products was a popular topic, followed by how to replace sugar with non-sugar sweeteners and vice versa – false claims that sugar sweeteners are carcinogenic. While nutritionists are actively debunking viral myths on sugar and vegetables, quickly accessible advice that may not be accurate is being considered legitimate by online users.
2023 trends ranged from fads over alkaline diets and water helping maintain PH levels in the human body to highly dangerous claims that drinking borax helps cure inflammation – all were routinely clarified by specialists and nutritionists to help people understand how certain food choices are not always superior or harmful.
Screenshots of posts from Instagram and YouTube claiming certain foods and ingredients that are beneficial for varying health conditions. (Source: Instagram/YouTube)
“Social media in general, has worked hand in hand with a global rise in health and food-related misinformation. This is particularly amplified and exaggerated in India because of the complex relationship of food with people,” says Krish Ashok, author of ‘Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking.’
He also explains fear feeds into the larger problem and platforms tend to incentivize negativity. “Algorithms incentivize and force creators to make content that is negative because, in 90 seconds nobody will question the evidence. Also, you are targeting people who are already anxious,” he added.
Using the common misconception that microwave cooking can cause cancer as an example, Ashok said, “If I choose to say microwave causes cancer, I will get likes because of the fear of innate things that are new – there is a fear of technology coming into food, and fear of processed food.”
“The capacity to search for and find information in real-time has empowered people to think that they possess the knowledge and expertise to talk about and provide advice on topics about food and nutrition,” according to a 2023 paper published in the Journal of Nutrition.
To regulate information shared online, the Indian government in April 2023 made it mandatory for all health influencers on social media to display their qualifications. In August 2023, it issued a new set of guidelines and rules for those who endorse products or therapies stating that they “must provide clear disclaimers, ensuring the audience understands that their endorsements should not be seen as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.”
In June 2023, France also approved a law that regulates influencer marketing on social media, while in the United Kingdom, multiple bodies act as watchdogs. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission creates and updates the framework around influencer disclosure. In Canada, the Competition Act is applied to anyone promoting a product, service, or any business interest.
This sea of food misinformation is also linked to social norms. Our cultural beliefs make us susceptible. For example: There is some belief in parts of India that pressure-cooked rice loses nutrients – which is not true. While rice was traditionally cooked in an open vessel (especially in north India), many households switched to pressure cookers to save energy and time, in turn creating fear mongering because it defies traditional ways of cooking.
“Every person who belongs in a micro-region with micro food-eating habits has an opportunity to use social media and imply that my way is the right way and social media algorithms have worked in a way where it has amplified conflict,” said Ashok.
For instance: Indian households traditionally use fabric napkins to store breads like chapatis and parathas (Indian bread). But with the increasing popularity of aluminum foil, those claiming to propagate a healthy or “chemical-free” lifestyle advised against it. Videos on Instagram explain how wrapping food in aluminum foil is toxic and may lead to diseases.
But aluminum is one of the most abundant elements in earth's crust's mass – it’s everywhere. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Exposure to the levels of aluminum that are naturally present in food and water are not considered to be harmful.”
A reel suggesting why aluminum foil should be avoided while packing food. (Source: Instagram)
Myths often originate from a lack of understanding, misapplication of science, and family traditions. In India, traditional eating practices and cooking methods are still considered sacrosanct and such content gets significant traction online.
Access to nutritious food is critical to health especially at a time when people are facing diet related health problems. “One of every five deaths across the globe is attributable to suboptimal diet,” but does that mean diet cures everything?
From water to vegetables, fruits and eggs, everything is sandwiched between a layer of misinformation. Social media presents some food and food choices as “magical” and others as toxic-causing diseases.
For example, posts talking about beetroot helping with belly detox, or apples, ginger, and lemon removing toxins – are all shared widely sans evidence. There is no compelling research to support the use of “detox” diets for weight management or eliminating toxins from the body.
Reels and posts highlighting how certain foods are toxic and how foods can cure diseases. (Source: Instagram, YouTube)
An article published on The Conversation about food choices and health benefits argues that one should be wary of strict dietary advice. “You should be wary about dietary advice that suggests you exclude the range of wonderful foods on offer and focus on a few “superfoods” that seemingly have magical properties. Nutrition is much more complex than that – and eating a healthy diet is much easier.”
Nutritional biochemist and one of the authors of the aforementioned article Dr. Gunter Kunhle told Logically Facts, “I don’t think “detox” in that respect is really something that happens. A fiber-rich diet will help to regulate gut transit time, but I don’t think this could be called “detox”. A proper detoxification i.e. removal of toxins, would usually happen with drugs (e.g. using EDTA to remove heavy metals) and diet won’t help here.”
A reel talking about 5 foods to avoid. (Source: Instagram)
Another post on social media claims that eggplant and pepper contains alkaloids and can be toxic. Other videos make similar claims: seeds of tomatoes shouldn’t be consumed, and people suffering from arthritis should avoid nightshade vegetables as they cause inflammation.
Even though there is no scientific evidence backing these claims, they are circulated on social media widely.
According to McGill University’s initiative Separating Sense from Nonsense, “There is no scientific evidence for this (nightshades cause inflammation) and avoiding these vegetables unnecessarily restricts diets.”
Clean eating, holistic health, and immunity boost are some of the most commonly used terms when it comes to discourse on health in the online space. “The term clean eating comes from a very privileged (western population) idea of being able to afford non-processed, freshly cooked clean food,” quips Ashok.
According to Harvard Health, “In some cases, clean eating, especially in its more rigid forms, can become less of a diet than an identity and could lead to disordered eating.” Now that people believe that "clean" foods are safer and higher quality, "certified clean" labels are starting to appear on some processed foods, but there's no standard definition behind them.
Another popular term “immunity building” has also been marketed and promoted widely, particularly during and after the pandemic. A study found that a search on boosting immunity returns a significant number (30 percent) of commercially-based webpages promoting the use and sales of supplements.
While social media may recommend many foods and supplements, the only evidence-based approach to this concept on “boosting” immunity is vaccination.
“One can’t build immunity by eating a particular food,” Ashok said. “If you eat a balanced overall diet, your immune system will do the best to its genetic ability but a single food cannot help build immunity. There is zero evidence that green tea does any good to you or any herbal tea will do any good to you. Over-consumption may likely damage your liver; we know this for sure.”
One of the more popular searches for health advice includes tips for weight management or holistic living. Recently, a raw food influencer Zhanna D'Art reportedly died due to starvation and exhaustion from her exclusive exotic fruit diet. She promoted eating raw foods on social media platforms, her Instagram account amassed 40,600 followers.
Gunter and his colleagues highlight that while a group of nutritional scientists have been involved in serious research to keep people healthier and happier, they are not responsible for the headlines. Perhaps regulations like the ones proposed in India and parts of Europe could help with sharing legitimate, scientifically-backed information.
“The best diet is the one that one can sustain. You can eat a range of diverse foods, lead a stress-free life, reduce refined carbohydrates, and that is a sustainable diet,” Ashok said. “But you don’t find people promoting it because there is nothing odd or crazy in it.”
(Edited by Ilma Hasan)