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How to find reliable and trustworthy sources of information

In this article, Dr Miriam Clegg explains how to identify reliable information in a world full of conflicting and changing advice.
© University of Reading, INRAE, CHU, NOFIMA, VUB

With all the conflicting and changing messages we hear about food, diets and nutrition, it can be difficult to work out what to believe.

It’s important to realise that nutritional science does have trends and fads. These can emerge because new results put things into a new light or because new methods of analysis become available, meaning that existing theories are re-analysed. Scientific theories are built from years of work that is advanced step-by-step, examining uncertainties and excluding possibilities, in order to uncover a single explanation about a relationship between, for example, diet and health.

The mainstream media is essential for reporting new scientific results to the general public. However, the media works under different conditions to science. It operates in a fast turnaround environment, constantly reporting on things that are newsworthy and interesting and summarising them for the general reader. News teams have to produce many headlines every day and there is very little time to research the full facts or talk to different scientists to get a balanced view.

And headlines follow their own logic. They should grab the reader’s attention, demonstrate the relevance of the story and underline the newsworthiness of the article, all in a few words. So headlines often simplify scientific findings into one clear message, highlight a single number and present it as surprising or new.

Because of this, it’s important to go beyond the headlines and look into some of the detail – perhaps by reading the original scientific article they’re based on or searching for further sources of reliable information on the topic. This guide from the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) is an excellent summary of advice on finding reliable information online. It highlights academic journals and websites of trusted organisations as the most reliable. On the other hand, information in newspapers, magazines, blogs and social media varies in quality and it can be difficult to track it back to a reliable source. Good articles should reference or link to their sources of information. The guide also suggests checking out who the author of the original scientific report is and whether they have relevant qualifications and credentials.

If the headline sounds too good to be true, then it probably is, and relying on one person’s experience of a diet does not provide an objective picture of the how that diet works for the rest of the population. It’s also important to remember that there are no miracle foods. We don’t eat foods but whole diets. Eating one particular food will not improve health if the overall diet is poor.

Task

Do you know where to find reliable food information sources in your country? Please let us know what country you’re from and list your top 3 sources in the discussion area below, especially sources of nutritional information that are specific to older people or healthy ageing.

If you’re interested in discovering more about how to interpret food headlines then you can join another online course, Food and Nutrition: The Truth Behind Food Headlines. You’ll learn how to find reliable, scientific information about food and nutrition more generally, get to grips with the statistical methods scientists use and what they show, and identify the truth behind the hype.

© University of Reading, INRAE, CHU, NOFIMA, VUB
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