How Social Media Shapes Your Diet and Causes Food Fears

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Are your Facebook friends shaping the way you eat? A study from Cornell University suggests that social media has a significant impact on “food fears,” whether or not those fears are founded in truth.

Food psychologist Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell canvassed 1,080 mothers about their beliefs on high fructose corn syrup. Participants with the greatest level of “food fear” were found to have more comprehensive educations but also relied predominantly on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to gather their nutrition information.

Much of the misinformation come from people who seek like-minded company on Facebook and similar arenas. As Wansink told Today, “One thing to keep in mind is part of the reason [they share their beliefs] is that they want people to think they are just as sensitive and politically savvy or whatever. … They are in search of validation.”

That people are posting in search of support for their claims, rather than focusing on the facts themselves, presents a challenge in attempting to combat misinformation.

Researchers at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab also found that exposing the public to more contextual information about a specific food or ingredient can lead to a reduction of this so-called food fear. A second portion of the nutrition study surveyed participants to rate the healthfulness of the artificial sweetener Stevia. Half of the participants were provided with a historical analysis of the ingredient, while the other half were not given any material to read. Those who read the scientific details on Stevia rated the ingredient as healthier than those who did not.

Food Production Daily reports that in 2013, 52 percent of consumers reported choosing “free from” products (i.e., without fat, sugar, etc.) while food shopping. This is up from just 28 percent in 2004 and continues to increase. While some of these trends are founded in fact, others are the direct result of dissemination through social media and unreliable sources.

“We’ve been looking at a lot of these food misconceptions,” said Wansink, who is the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing at Cornell University, to Today. “It’s kind of crazy. How do these things get started and get traction without really any evidence at all?”

One such trend in food avoidance is the omission of gluten products from a person’s diet. Although the Mayo Clinic does advise a gluten-free diet for those with celiac disease, the mixture of proteins found in gluten is not associated with any other health risks.

Harry Balzer, head industry analyst at the NPD group, told Consumer Affairs that people who eliminate gluten from their diet without having celiac disease likely do so for a “false feeling of wellness.” In one bit earlier this year, comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel sent a camera crew to find out if Los Angeles residents on gluten-free diets knew what gluten is (the majority did not).

But according to The Washington Post, the gluten-free industry is skyrocketing in value despite its ambiguous health effects. This market is currently worth somewhere between $4 billion and $10 billion, and it is still climbing. Various food brands and restaurant chains have taken advantage of this money maker, devoting entire gluten-free menus to the concept. These, in turn, feed back into the public conception that a gluten-free diet is beneficial to one’s health.

Cornell’s research supports the finding that a consumer armed with the facts will be the most discerning in matters of nutritional health. Rather than relying on Facebook, Twitter, or the trending diet of the time, Wansink offered this advice, per Today: “To overcome food ingredient fears, learn the science, history, and the process of how the ingredient is made, and you’ll be a smarter, savvier consumer.”

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