The Internet: Food for Thought or Eaten Alive?

Is the Internet a mind-boggling pit of scams, half-truths, and unsavory information? Or is it an amazing network of insights, assistance, and support on a universe of topics? It is both.

How can you separate the scams from solid guidance in the areas of food and nutrition? The hoax-fighting website Snopes can be invaluable in quickly separating fact from fiction. A few helpful tips can apply to any subject matter, not just food and nutrition.

Tip Number 1

When you get one of those emails that says, "Send this to every person you know or care about," don't do it! Legitimate sources of information do not rely on forwarded emails to spread their messages. True, many reliable sources send out press releases and some get shared via listservs, but those formal mailings specify the name of the government office or organization, the source's mailing address and phone number and, often, a contact name.

Tip Number 2

Know the source of the information and decide if the source is trustworthy. This includes email or websites information. Commercial sites can certainly offer valuable products and services. Companies exist, however, to make a profit, and many cross the line in misrepresenting what they sell. Don't be swayed by wild claims. Make sure the product or service is safe and effective for your need and that you can afford it. As an example in the area of food and nutrition, dietary supplements sold online are a multi-billion dollar business. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration closely regulates health claims made about foods, but dietary supplements have much less oversight in terms of health claims. The guidance truly is "Let the buyer beware."

Tip Number 3

Start with the best. Focus on sites you can rely on to provide information that has been evaluated for accuracy. In relation to nutrition and disease, the National Institutes of Health's website represents the world's largest gateway to information about many different diseases and health conditions. There are links on eating, physical activity, and other lifestyle habits that prevent health problems or control those problems if they develop. Another source of reliable food and nutrition information nationwide are University Extension websites. In Wyoming, one of the most popular topics these days is food preservation. University of Wyoming Extension's Food and Nutrition website provides a link to many Wyoming-specific publications and national websites that help people can, dry, and freeze various foods in ways that are safe and yield a high-quality product. The Eat Wyoming project, connecting local foods with consumers in Wyoming provides reliable information on food preservation and beyond

Tip Number 4

Social media networks like Twitter and Facebook warrant special mention because those communications can blur the line between authentic friend-to-friend sharing and major commercial promotion efforts. This blurring can make it harder to tell whether a product or service is genuinely recommended by one or more individuals or if the impetus is actually a promotional push from the business itself. Thus, Tip Number 4, is to ask yourself, "In whose interest is it that I buy this specific product or buy into this particular service?"

The Internet must be approached with both respect and caution in what it is capable of delivering. Our own interests and curiosity are important ingredients in exploring what the Internet can offer, but we must approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and solid critical thinking.

Original Article

This article was originally drafted in 2010 by Suzy Pelican through the Wyoming Food Safety Coalition (WFSC) which is dedicated to preventing food borne illness.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Glen Whipple, Director, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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