Your snacking nirvana might’ve fallen to earth earlier this month after learning that Nutella causes cancer.
But according to Alex Berezow, Sr. Fellow of Biomedical Science at the American Council on Science and Health, this is a prime example of fake science and health news run amok. Why?
It’s true that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found an association between high levels of palm oil consumption and signs of cancer in rats. But, he points out that there are three important caveats frequently missing from articles promoting this story:
- The ‘safe’ numbers offered by the EFSA were completely arbitrary and not based on any clinical measurement.
- The organization did not recommend that consumers avoid eating palm oil, since “further study was needed to assess the level of risk.”
- Although Nutella (and tens of thousands of other products) contains palm oil, it wasn’t specifically mentioned by the EFSA.
What’s the point? This “Nutella causes cancer” nonsense is just the most recent instance of fake science and health news, which—based on its immense reach—can have a very real impact on you as a consumer. And in ways you might not immediately recognize, too.
We talked with several industry experts who can help you navigate this immensely complex topic. We’ll also help you understand the potential consequences and provide real-world methods of discerning between fake science and health news and the real deal.
The Definition of Fake Science News
Although the answer to this question might seem obvious, once you scratch underneath the surface a bit, it’s not quite so straightforward. How so?
Making up a story from whole cloth and promoting it as truth would be a clear example of fake news. But as we can see with the Nutella story, it’s not always so cut and dry.
For example, do we define fake science and health news as content that’s not substantiated by adequate clinical evidence? Or, that’s simply not accepted by mainstream medicine? Does sloppy journalism qualify?
Gary Schwitzer, Publisher of HealthNewsReview.org and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, provides some direction. He defines it as, “stories [that] promote unproven claims or exaggerate claims of effectiveness about health care interventions.”
HealthNewsReview itself goes a little further by adding that fake science articles often “… emphasize potential benefits, minimize or ignore potential harms, and ignore cost issues.”
With such as broad definition, you might imagine that there are seemingly countless examples of fake science and health news—and you’d be right. Let’s discuss this next.
What Are Some Examples of Fake Health & Science News?
Andrew Brown, a UAB Nutrition and Obesity Research Center scientist and Cynthia Kroeger, a post-doctoral fellow in the UAB Office of Energetics, have regular, in-depth discussions about fake science and health news.
Every Friday, they publish the topic of their discussions in the Headline vs. Study section of their website. Based on what they’ve learned, they outline a quick example of the intricacy of the problem:
“Sometimes, the story is great, and only the headline is the problem. Sometimes the headline actually matches what the scientists concluded or stated in a press release, but the scientists themselves went too far.”
Because fake health news can appear from so many different angles, we can get a sense of just how broad the problem is by taking a look at the HealthNewsReview website. Recent examples run the gamut; everything from constipation drugs and breast cancer treatments, to zinc supplementation and heart disease.
Clearly, these are some deeply important topics. And as you might imagine, basing important decisions on not-wholly-true information can lead to some negative consequences.
What Are Some Consequences of Fake Science & Health News?
Gary Schwitzer says that “an informed public is crucial to a healthy health care system.”
Without this [information], it’s easy to be misled (or even harmed) by unproven or exaggerated claims, not to mention the financial impact of spending money on products and services that may not make any difference in your life.
Jeff Carlson, MD, and President of Orthopaedic and Spine Center in Newport News, VA, gives us some specific consequences of believing that natural treatments (a particularly popular topic in the fake science and health news realm) are just as effective and less harmful than medicine:
“Stopping a regimen of blood thinners after leg surgery in favor of turmeric will lead to blood clots and possible death. Passive actions, which include not seeking medical treatment in favor of the most recent health food advertisement on late night TV, can also lead to delaying life-saving/altering treatment. Using garlic and oregano to fight a tooth abscess can lead to an extension of the abscess into the brain.”
Finally, Morton Tavel, Clinical Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, and author of Health Tips, Myths, & Tricks: A Physician’s Advice, talks about potential consequences of adhering to a crash or fad diet (another especially popular topic):
“Because many crash diets can upset blood sugar, potassium and sodium levels in the body, they should be strenuously avoided by anyone with diabetes, heart or kidney disease, or by women who are pregnant or nursing. Children, teens, older adults or people with certain digestive conditions should also steer clear.”
Clearly, the potential physical and financial damage that fake science and health news can cause is limited only by the number of consumers who believe in it.
But why are these stories created in the first place? Is there a sinister individual typing away in some dark corner of the internet, trying to trick us all?
What’s the Point of Fake Science & Health News? Why Publish It at All?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the topic of fake news is big these days. And from a political perspective, it might be easy to see the point: to denigrate another candidate or elevate another.
But what about from a science and health perspective? What’s the end game? Unsurprisingly, we learned during our research that it’s typically related to money.
Gary Schwitzer tells us that many stand to profit from this deceitful news, including promoters of these ideas, their institutions, and the manufacturers of the products.
Circling back to the Nutella article, Alex Berezow asks and answers: “So, why pick on Nutella? The only sensible explanation is that palm oil-free alternatives to Nutella see an opportunity to steal market share.”
Andrew Brown and Cynthia Kroeger add some balance to the discussion by noting that science and health news designated as ‘fake’ may not always be based on bad intentions:
“Journalists may genuinely believe their sensational headlines, or people sharing the information may believe that the ‘ends' of getting people's attention for what they consider an important topic is justified by the ‘means' of distorting information; or scientists may believe that their interpretation of or extrapolations from the science are correct.
“So sometimes what is considered ‘fake science news’ and what is just poor science reporting is, on the surface, indistinguishable.”
Gary Schwitzer mirrors this sentiment when he places blame on the shoulders of journalists “for filling their daily quota with not-ready-for-primetime news that is often spoon-fed to them by news releases.”
Further complicating the situation, though, Jeff Carlson points out that fake science news often amounts to little more than marketing (again, returning to money):
“The marketing of remedies, braces, surgical procedures directly to patients is meant to move patient’s money from their local economy to the producer. The making of compelling advertising with images and statements from patients that make people think there is a magic wand available can be difficult to combat.”
Given all the different facets in which fake science and health news can hide, how can you, an average consumer, prevent yourself from falling for one of these stories?
4 Methods for Spotting Fake Science & Health News
According to Jeff Carlson, “A lot of medical training is dedicated to interpreting what studies are important and valuable as opposed to those that are useless or meaningless.”
But what can everyday consumers do who may not have a medical degree under their belt?
1. Get Your Doctor Involved
In many instances, those deceived by fake science and health news are suffering from an illness or chronic condition and are looking for relief.
If you don’t have medical training, though, and question whether or not a health-related news article (or the treatment it promotes) is legit, Jeff suggests that you start by relying on someone who does. Namely, your physician.
He recommends having a face-to-face visit, engaging in an open conversation and communicating your concerns or problems. And if you haven’t already, undergoing any relevant physical exams or imaging procedures.
From there, you’ll both have a solid knowledge base to work from and help you choose between sound treatment choices that are tailored to your specific diagnosis, which generally leads to “better outcomes and less frustration.”
2. Find Out Where the News Originated
While they’re certainly experts in their respective fields, Andrew Brown and Cynthia Kroeger at UAB note that this might not always be the case when they research different fake science and health news claims.
Even as a layman in a particular topic, though, they recommend tracing the news back to the original data (the published research article), which can bring you “a few steps closer to deciphering if the news is grounded in reliable, empirical evidence.”
Pro tip: Does this step sound overwhelming? Don’t worry; it’s totally doable! In Four Steps for Identifying Fake Science, we cover several methods you can use to help you verify the legitimacy of a clinical study, including:
- How to find out who conducted the study, as we as who provided funding
- Where the study was published
- Which professionals (and how many) were involved
Did you find that the article doesn’t trace back to the source? Cynthia and Andrew tell us this is definitely a cause for caution. Here’s where you might want to loop back to step one!
Let’s discuss some additional article-related tips you can implement today.
3. Article Clues for Identifying Fake Science & Health News
In How to Spot a Fake Science News Story, Alex Berezow lays out ten excellent tips that we’d strongly recommend reading.
We found number 10 especially straightforward: Beware if “the article is from the Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Natural News, or any number of environmentalist, health activist, or food fad websites.”
When asked why these publications should be avoided, Alex told us that it all comes down to “sensationalist nonsense (i.e., they often draw huge, sweeping conclusions from a single study).”
Alex also recommends avoiding articles that “fail to separate scientific evidence from science policy.” He notes that this often stems from “the fact that people ascribe to different values and priorities,” which is something we discuss in How Your Brain Affects What You Buy.
Bringing us back around to the Nutella article (remember how it’s not referenced in any of the clinical literature?), Alex says we should also be wary when, “The article ties the research to something only tangentially related.”
4. What Are Some Reputable Sources for Learning More?
With fake science and health news becoming an ever-increasing threat to consumers’ physical and financial wellbeing, it might be easy to become overwhelmed.
Fortunately, there are many legitimate organizations focused on helping keep you safe. Based on their editorial standards, quality content, and professional approaches, here are a few I follow:
- The American Council on Science and Health
- Center for Science In the Public Interest
- Consumer Federation of America
Some great additional resources when trying to combat fake science and health news include:
- Consumer Reports’ Choosing Wisely Campaign – An extensive list of wasteful medical treatments.
- IFIC Foundation - Clarifying material on food.
- WebMD & Examine.com – Outlines clinical evidence associated with thousands of different ingredients.
- Consumerlab – Independent tests and vitamin reviews.
- National Institutes of Health PubMed – Allows you to search for published research.
Are there other sources, or additional tips you can provide? Be sure to share your insights by commenting below.