Reader Beware: Misinformation on the Internet

Yesterday I came across an interesting article posted on one of the facebook page’s I follow. It was a post from a blog about canola oil. I read through the article at first and then thought “OMG, this stuff is bad. AND I cook with it! Ahhh…” Then I started to wonder where all this information came from. There is SOOO much misinformation out there on the internet, especially about diet and exercise. As a scientist, the first thing you are taught is where does your information come from. Information should come from respected peer-review journals and not Wikipedia (as much as we all love it!). You must also consider studies that might contradict other studies on the same topic and also how each study is funded if that information is available. Generally, information found in peer-review journals can be trusted, but on rare occasions there is fraud and misinformation. This has occurred in the case of Autism vs. vaccinations. An article published in 1998 in the journal Lancet by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield which links Autism to the MMR vaccine. However, what were not released in the initial article were his ties to a patent on a rival measles vaccine and how the study was funded. The article has seen been retracted and Wakefield faces serious charges on professional misconduct before the General Medical Council. Wakefield’s study was the catalyst to the Autism vs. vaccination debate, and research has shown over and over again that there is no clear link of vaccinations causing Austism(1).

So instead of believing everything I read in the article about Canola Oil, I decided to look it up. First I start with a basic Google search. The first couple of sites that pop up are from Wikipedia, the Canola Oil Council of Canada, and a snopes.com article about Canola Oil. Now, I love Wikipedia and I think it’s a great source to use at the beginning of your search for information, but it is not always reliable and accurate. You can get basic information from it, but you should always check the sources at the bottom of the page. Where do they come from? I decided to begin my research with the Canola Oil Council of Canada to get some basic information. Canola oil is made from the canola seed. Canola was bred naturally from its parent rapeseed in the early 1970s and has a different nutritional profile from the rapeseed. Scientists used traditional cross breeding methods to eliminate the undesirable components of rapeseed, namely the erucic acid and glucosinolate that have been linked to possible health concerns in laboratory animals(2). Now the blog post I read claims that canola oil is genetically modified. Cross breeding of plants is not genetically modifying a plant. Gregor Mendel cross bred pea plants in the 1800s and the study of genetics was born! Genetically modified foods have a piece of DNA inserted into its natural genetic sequence through methods called recombinant DNA. Now, the Canola Oil Council of Canada website has some great information about canola oil, but obviously they are going to be bias and probably won’t be sharing anything negative about canola oil. So we might question its accuracy. I then checked out the article on snopes.com. Snopes.com aims to either debunk or confirm rumors. The rumor of canola oil came from an email in 2001. Actually, much of the information in the email is the same as in the blog post I saw. Even some of the sentences are word for word so that definitely indicates a red flag (or at least for me). Snopes follows with information that they researched from fairly reliable sources, which they provide at the end of the article. Much of the information on snopes can be found on the Canola Oil Council of Canada website. The last step I took in researching is conducting a scholarly journal database search. You can do these through a library database (these might cost money) or through the Google Scholar search option. Both of these methods have its limitations in that you probably won’t have access to many journal articles because they cost money. Sometimes hundreds of dollars for a subscription! My database search didn’t turn up much information about the topic so it’s definitely debatable. There were a few potential articles but I could not access the full texts. Bummer!

So what is my conclusion? Personally, I think the blog article was rather bogus. Some information is probably accurate but the writer has no resources and when asked for her references she claims that they are at home in Canada. Hmm… sounds fishy to me. Some claims in her post are completely false. Mustard Gas is in fact not from the rapeseed plant, but is a chemical synthesized in the laboratory. It was given the name Mustard Gas because the impure form of it smells similar to mustard(3). Then the blog writer goes into the negatives of GMO foods. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about GMO foods and I think much of the science is still unknown. As time goes on I think we will know more about the health effects that GMO foods have on us. A good source of information can be found here: http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php.

I recently finished reading The China Study and I should hopefully have my final review up by the end of the week. I’ve also been reading a great deal of nutrition and training articles in magazines and online. I’m amazed about the amount of contradictory and misinformation about nutrition and exercise out there, especially from people who have no qualifications! So what makes someone qualified? Generally, they will either have an advanced degree (MD, PhD, PT, MS, etc), license (by the state or by an official governing board), be certified by an association (NASM, ISSA, USAT, etc.) or a combination of the three. Anyone can claim to be a nutritionist, personal trainer, and/or coach and give advice. They may be right or they may be wrong. A nutritionist should have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition or dietary studies. They should have a strong background in the sciences and food and nutrition. Thirty-three states required nutritionists to be licensed as a registered dietitian (RD). This is very important. In order to obtain a license the RD must take a knowledge-based test(4). Chances are if they are an RD then they know their stuff. Some personal trainers obtain a college degree in exercise physiology and some just obtain an online certification through one of the personal training associations. Personally, I prefer someone with a college degree because they are more apt to know more about physiology and the science behind how your body works while exercising. Some people don’t care. I think it’s a personal preference. You should always pick someone that you trust and feel comfortable with.

And now you’re probably wondering if I’m qualified to tell you all this. Nope, I’m not and I will tell you that straight up. I did some research and also described my beliefs on the subject. Take whatever I say how you want. The real moral of the story is to educate yourself and don’t believe everything you read or hear. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to see their credentials and ask questions.

References

1. http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1000114
2. http://www.canolainfo.org/canola/index.php
3. http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/Chemistry/MOTM/mustard/mustard.htm
4. http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos077.htm

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