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How to Evaluate Nutrition Information on the Internet: Quackery, Red Flags, & the CARS Checklist

Navigating nutrition information on the internet can be challenging. The amount of information alone can be overwhelming, and may lead us to click on the first link we see without assessing credentials. The result: misinformation spreads like a wildfire!

Let’s stop the spread, shall we?

The goal of this post is to equip you with the tools and techniques to help sort out the junk science and find reliable and accurate nutrition information.

Let’s begin by learning about junk science, and how to identify it.

What is “Quackery”?

Simply put, quackery is health fraud or junk science.

More specifically, quackery is the promotion of services/products rooted in dishonest or unproven practices, especially in the health industry.

Quackery comes in many forms, such as:

  • promoting foods or diets for their supposed health benefits
  • generalizations about foods or diets
  • claiming or labelling a certain food to be much healthier than it actually is

“Why would someone want to do this?” you ask?

The answer is often: for economic gain (a.k.a. making money)!

Essentially, quackery offers false hope, usually in the form of quick fixes that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the consumer.

Now that we know what quackery is, how can we easily identify it?

Red Flags for Quackery

Be on the lookout for these red flags when sorting through nutrition information:

1. Quick Fixes: Sounding too good to be true

This is a big one that is unfortunately seen a LOT, and is a major red flag for quackery.

If you look, you can find people promising quick fixes everywhere from websites of weight loss companies, to magazines promoting the newest fad diets, and ads on television and social media.

The next time you glance at a magazine at the grocery store or flip through TV channels, be wary of statements like:

  • “21 day fix!”
  • “Lose ___ lbs in only ___ days!”
  • “Ripped in just __ minutes!”

These statements may seem like the quick and easy way to reach your health goals (whatever they may be), but are not ideal for building a balanced, longterm, healthy life.

Instead, reach out to your local dietitian or doctor and focus on seeking reliable nutrition advice from credible sources (more on how to find credible sources below!).

2. Dramatic Statements & Dire Warnings

This often includes labelling foods as “good” or “bad”, and saying you must implement or avoid certain foods for their pro- or anti-health properties.

This is often referred to as food faddism and is an integral part of fad diets.

Watch out for statements like:

  • “Eat one ____ daily to lose/gain weight”
  • “Foods to avoid for weight loss/gain”
  • “Good foods” or “bad foods”
  • Only eat ___ ” or “never eat ___”

3. Selling a Product

This one is pretty straight forward! When evaluating nutrition information on a magazine or website, check to see if the company is attempting to sell you something, or if they are promoting a food/diet for deliberate economic gain.

Look for things like:

  • Food products that claim massive health benefits, such as:
    • detox teas
    • supplements (herbal, collagen, performance enhancing)
  • Fad diet companies or large corporations that sell you a quick fix through:
    • apps
    • magazines & books
    • biased documentaries

4. Using “Science” to Support Claims

This is a huge one! Science and studies can be manipulated to suit a company’s needs and support their claims, not only in health, but in any field (e.g. politics).

Be wary of:

  • simple conclusions from complex studies
  • statements refuted by reputable science organizations
  • using the word “science” to support claims
  • using a single study
  • using a study that is not peer reviewed
  • using studies that ignore differences among individuals & groups

As a consumer, I’m sure you’ve seen one or two (or maybe all) of these fraudulent practices in place at some point. I know I have!

Recognizing red flags is an important step in assessing nutrition information, and now we can move on to the last step:

The CARS Checklist

This quick check is extremely helpful in identifying reliable nutrition information, and is super easy to remember!

C – credibility

  • Authorship (does the author/organization have credentials? education?)
  • Organization (where did the information come from? personal testimony/one person or an organization?)
  • Peer reviewed (is the article edited/reviewed? recently edited?)

A – accuracy

  • Timely-ness (current?)
  • Completeness (does it consider different sides of the argument?)

R – reasonableness

  • Fairness (does it treat the opposition fairly?)
  • Objectivity (unbiased? underlying advertising?)
  • Moderateness (do they stay away from extreme statements/sweeping generalizations?)

S – support

  • Bibliography (are sources cited?)
  • Corroboration (do other sources agree/support?)
  • External consistency (is it consistent with the published literature?)

Here are a few more things to look for:

  • Does the information seem reasonable? Does it make sense?
  • Who will benefit from you purchasing this product?
  • Has the product stood the test of time? Or does it seem outdated and unsupported?

So Who Can We Trust?

  1. Educated & trustworthy experts with credentials (medical doctors, registered dietitians, etc.)
  2. Government resources that are based on the knowledge of educated experts
  3. Professional organizations providing reliable information

PHEW, that was a lot of information! But hopefully now you are well equipped to face the internet without feeling overwhelmed, and know exactly what to watch out for when sorting through nutrition information.

Sources:

Valentine, Sabina. “Chapter 1: Food for Health.” Nutrition and Well Being, University of Alberta, Winter 2021.

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