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The Mouse that Roared:
Health Scares on the Internet

© 1999, IFIC Foundation

The World Wide Web is a tremendous resource for consumers and others who want an additional outlet to help them take control of their health. "The Internet is full of important, even lifesaving, medical information," stated Randolph Wykoff, M.D., M.P.H., of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But, not all Internet information passes the test of the Hippocratic oath. Enter: Doctor Deception who now makes house calls.

On occasion, some not-so-sound information spoils a wealth of excellent information on the Internet. With a click of the mouse, a word-of-mouth phenomenon can be multiplied exponentially via the World Wide Web or electronic mail and result in questionable nutrition, food safety and health stories being sent directly to your computer. In the age of the Internet and instantaneous global communication -- in tandem with an increasing interest in nutrition's relation to health -- it is not surprising that anyone with a modem can send consumers and others into a food and health panic.

Most of us have heard at least a few of the following myths that have been started and perpetuated on the Web: the great kidney harvest caper; the antibacterial sponge made with agent orange; the fluorescent lights that leach vitamins from your body; the cancer causing shampoo, and dozens, maybe hundreds more.

These would all be simply entertaining if everyone recognized them as practical jokes, the mantras of unhappy people, or simply misunderstandings given life on the Internet. But not everyone can recognize these tall tales as fiction.

The Bias Belt

Some of the most egregious myths come from legitimate sounding individuals who have fallen in love with their theories. They believe they are serving the public by warning them of dire health consequences as the result of touching, smelling, eating or drinking a perfectly safe product. Many consumers are confused and unwittingly oblige in the scam by forwarding the frightening electronic mail or referencing the site to family, friends and associates believing they are doing them a service. And, receiving one of these reports from a family member or friend adds to its alleged authenticity.

A recent TIME Magazine article (April 26, 1999) sums it up well: "The Web is praised as a wondrous educational tool, and in some respects it is. Mostly though, it appears to be a stunning advance in the shoring up of biases, both benign (one's own views) and noxious (other views)."

In most cases, there is no harm intended by those who position their opinions as facts. In other instances, the sly intent of the author may be relatively easy for health professionals, who have a strong science background, to detect. But, for some consumers with little frame of reference to tell fact from fiction, it can be misleading.

For example, an innocent Web surfer looking for information about dietary fats may stumble across one of several web sites spreading fear and confusion about a frequently used cooking oil. With a masthead featuring a skull and crossbones, or the headline: "Canola Oil: Deadly for the Human Body!," such sites may cause baseless consumer concern. If the consumer does not seek unbiased information, he or she will miss the real story: canola oil, a safe, monounsaturated oil, can help lower blood cholesterol levels when substituted for saturated fats in the diet.

"Where Did You Hear That?"

At one time, doctors were the primary source of health information for consumers, but in the late 1990s the paradigm for securing this type of information changed," remarked Fergus Clydesdale, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts. Now, for both consumers and health professionals, the primary source of information is the news media. This information source replaces the traditional physician-patient relationship for consumers. For health professionals, media accounts now precede the medical journals and attendance at academic meetings. Often, a consumer first raises an issue with his or her health professional by asking about a story that on the evening TV news before health professionals have even received their journals.

A recent telephone survey conducted by Schwarz Pharma, Inc., and reported in the American Journal of Public Health, noted that approximately 29% of Americans have turned to the Internet for medical information -- a number that, although not high compared to other media outlets, is likely to grow.

According to the 1997 Nutrition Trends Survey conducted by The American Dietetic Association (ADA), 57% of consumers named television as their main source of nutrition information, followed by magazines at 44% and newspapers at 23%. Doctors and dietitians were at just 9% and 5%, respectively.

The same ADA survey, however, found that the tables were turned in terms of credibility. Information from doctors and dietitians/nutritionists was found to be "more valuable" (52%) than that from television news and newspaper articles (24% and 21%, respectively). The Internet may follow this same pattern of delivery versus credibility -- the Internet or World Wide Web was found to be the health news according to respondents in the 1997 report, Americans Talk About Science and Medical News from the National Health Council. While the Internet can be a valuable source for scientifically accurate health information, it can also be a frontier town with no sheriff for assuring the truth of the information presented.

John Renner, M.D., of the National Council for Reliable Health Information remarked, "There is a health information shock factor on the Internet because there is so much information, both good and bad, marvelous and terrible. We've moved from a small library of information with a friendly librarian, to a huge warehouse with lots of people offering information," he continued. Consumers have not faced this situation before. The problem is the public can be deceived-believing that because they have seen something on the Web, it must be true.

A perfect example of how the public can be misled is a recent Internet article by a Nancy Markle that has taken on a "cyberlife" of its own. The article alleges that aspartame (a sweetener found in food and beverages) causes lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS) and other diseases and conditions, none of which has any scientific validity. Highly respected health professional organizations were fraudulently associated with the story, and numerous vulnerable people were needlessly frightened by this scientifically false allegation.

One of the marvels of the Internet is that as easily as you can receive inaccurate information, you can search for and find accurate information. If consumers were concerned about the alleged aspartame connection with MS, they could check the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation's Internet site for accurate information. David Squillacote, M.D., senior medical advisor of the MS Foundation wrote in his response to the Internet scare, "This series of allegations by Ms. Markle are almost totally without foundation. They are rabidly inaccurate and scandalously misinformative." Fortunately, numerous reliable organizations, Internet sites and publications have refuted this particular epidemic of hysteria and provided additional context for consumers.

The FDA's website is an excellent source for accurate information. Consumers wishing to counteract or confirm the aspartame story can find the following information from the FDA which could allay their fears: "After reviewing scientific studies, the FDA determined in 1981 that aspartame was safe for use in foodsTo date, the FDA has not determined any consistent pattern of symptoms that can be attributed to the use of aspartame, nor is the agency aware of any recent studies that clearly show safety problems."

What's a Cyber-Citizen to Do?

How can consumers judge the validity of information received via electronic mail or popping up in a Web search? The foremost guideline for sorting the "trash" from the "treasure" is-just because something is printed on the Internet does not mean that it is true or credible.

Unfortunately for most of us, the best defense against nutrition misinformation and quackery on the Internet is in-depth scientific knowledge. Since not everyone has the level of scientific awareness or advanced degrees necessary to judge the validity of every story, the following tactics may be useful:

The Internet has been a boon to consumers who want research and information on voluminous issues and topics at the tip of their fingers. It has also empowered many people to find health information to help them improve their well-being. Nevertheless, the ease of Web publishing has also given an unregulated forum to unreliable sources. Careful scrutiny and a healthy dose of skepticism are still necessary to determine what applies to you and what may need a second opinion.

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This article is from the May/June 1999 issue of Food Insight, an excellent bimonthly newsletter available in print and online from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), 1100 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 430, Washington, DC 20036.

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This article was posted on September 12, 1999.