The world wide web is a great source of information. Indeed we are living in the information age. There is hardly anything that you want to learn that you can’t learn on the internet. The amount of free information that is out there can save you countless dollars you would spend solving everyday problems. For example, I just bought a second hand snow blower with no manual. Where do you think I went to find information on how to operate it? The web of course. With rising costs these days I imagine that more people will be turning to the internet to solve more than the occasional technical problems such as how to run a snow blower but will also be looking for health information to diagnose and treat diseases without going to the doctor. But, with the cauldron of health claims on the internet, how do you know which ones you can trust? Some of them are really crazy. Consider a recent claim I saw, that taking placenta pills or eating your placenta will speed up recovery after pregnancy. Very little, if any evidence supports this, yet some celebrities swear by it. As a user of the internet it is very important that you know how to use it wisely – what to keep and what to reject. In this article, I will discuss 10 important questions to ask when deciphering whether or not you should trust or trash a health claim.

Does the Health Claim Fit the Research Study Designed?

Experimental study designs are the gold standard of research designs. In this type of design, the subjects to be studied are randomly picked and carefully controlled to prevent bias. For example, one group may be given a drug and the other a placebo to see if the drug has any effect. This type of design is not always possible however. It may be unethical to conduct the study in humans. You may need to first test the drugs in animals. How much can we apply animal studies to humans? We have to be cautious. These studies generally provide us with preliminary data that will need further exploration. Therefore health claims made based on animals studies alone may not be accurate. I suppose that one could also argue that even if humans were used in the study, you cannot always assume that it will apply to you. Which population was studied? How many individuals were part of the study? What was their age and health status? These are all questions that are relevant in assessing if the study applies to you.

Apart from substituting human studies with animal studies, there is another type of study that can be used when it becomes unethical to run those studies in humans. We can do what is known as observational studies. Let’s say for example, you want to determine the effect of mercury on the mental health of a population that lives and fish in a particular lake? It would be unthinkable that you would contaminate the lake with mercury to test your hypothesis. Instead, you would collect health data on individuals who may have been already exposed to mercury from the lake. The problem with observational studies though, is that they are normally fraught with biases and confounding factors. With these studies you will only identify relationships rather than causation. What I mean by this is that you will never know if the mercury is what is causing poor mental heath. Instead, you may notice that people who fish in that lake tend to have a higher incidence of poor mental health. Other factors such as genetics, other environmental and social factors, may also be playing a role. Therefore don’t be too quick to embrace a health claim based on observational studies without contemplating the potential confounding factors.

Was the Health Claim Based on Testimonials?

Testimonials are great when considering what purchases to make. I like reading the Amazon reviews for products I don’t know about before taking the chance to spend my money. We call this social proof. We depend on other people’s experiences to estimate the experience we are likely to have. However, when it comes to drugs or dietary supplements, it’s a different story. You can’t just expect that the drug will do the same thing for you. Decisions like that will need to be guided by a professional such as your doctor or dietitian as the case may be. We are different in many ways – genetics, physiology, psychology, temperament, environment, you name it. And, these differences will dictate our experience. Avoid making health decisions such as what drugs to take, and what diet plan to start just because it’s working for other people.

Who Did the Research?

Anyone can make a claim, but not everyone is qualified to do so. Articles making health claims should make it easy for you to find the name of the person and/or organization that did the study, plus provide information about their qualifications. Look for an About Us page or Contact Us page with email or phone number with who to call. If you don’t see this, I would think twice before taking their advice.

Who Reviewed the Study?

Just as how it is important “who” did the study, who reviewed the study is also important. The most credible studies will be peer-reviewed. That is, other experts in the field will look at the study to examine the research design, findings, conclusions, references, and consistency with similar research studies. They will then decide if it is worthy of publication. These studies are generally published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This should be the first place you should look when trying to find credible research-based health information that is founded on good science. Non peer-reviewed studies, even by qualified individuals should still be taken with a grain of salt.

What Type of Sources Were Provided?

Research is never done in isolation. It’s always based on work that has already been done. Remember, we build on the shoulders of others. Therefore, you will naturally expect to see qualified references in every good research study. What do I mean by qualified references? The best references will come from academic peer-reviewed journal articles. However, good sources of information also include government agencies, research institutes, and professional organizations. References ending with .gov or .edu are most credible. Dot com websites are generally commercial website which means that they are selling something. This may create a conflict of interest. Here are some examples of credible sources of health information that are worthy of citing:

Is the Author(s) Selling Something?

What is the purpose of the website? Are they trying to sell or advocate something? If the purpose in not solely for the sake of educating the public, then being aware of their specific purpose is helpful. Bias or conflict of interest may be an issue. For example, how much would you trust health claims from a website article touting the health benefits of cheese while also selling cheese or being sponsored by a cheese maker? It would certainly raise skepticism. They may be sharing accurate information, but who knows? At least being aware of their purpose, or sponsors will send a signal that we might have to tread softly.

Is The Study Up-To-Date?

Peer-reviewed studies in journals will tell you when the study was done. You can therefore easily assess for yourself whether the information is current. A study done 20 years ago may still apply today, or it may not, based on the advance in medical approaches, techniques and equipment since then. The currency of information on some websites may not be that clear. If the publication date is not evident, look for signs that the information may be out-of-date. These may include outdated news feeds and events on the site, slow page load, the page is not mobile-friendly, and links that do not work.

Does the Claim Suggest a Miracle Cure?

Have you seen those articles promising a miracle cure with little effort? We have all seen them. We are better off, if you ask me, to stay away from claims that offer the silver bullet and are not founded on good science. Be suspicious when you hear these works:

  1. “New breakthrough discovery”
  2. “Secret”
  3. “No side effects”
  4. “Miracle cure”
  5. “Wonder drug”
  6. “Super food”
  7. “Backed by scientific research”

Remember, “if it sounds too good to be true…….”

Conclusion

Health claims are everywhere on the internet. Some good, but some are bad, even horrible. Knowing the right questions to ask will help you decide on which ones to run with and which ones to trash. Ask these questions the next time you hear the next health claim. Let them guide you to make the best decisions for you and your family.

Courtney Simons
Administrator
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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