Everyone's responsibility: Don't let emotion influence how health information is acted upon in the digital age

"I know I should be grateful to be alive at a time when we have easy access to so much valuable information," writes Delaney Seiferling. "Instead, I feel overwhelmed, especially as a pregnant woman and a new mom."

Too often we’re overwhelmed when we oversimplify and broadly apply what we read online

Since Delaney Seiferling (not pictured) became pregnant with her first child three years ago, she has questioned many of her daily product choices, especially food. (Shutterstock)

I recently came across a headline on my Facebook page saying that early research suggests a possible link between processed foods in pregnancy and autism. I hate these types of headlines.

I know I should be grateful to be alive at a time when we have easy access to so much valuable information. Instead, I feel overwhelmed, especially as a pregnant woman and a new mom.

Since becoming pregnant with my first child three years ago, I have questioned many of my daily product choices, especially food. I constantly wonder if these products will one day be linked to harmful effects in my children.

I vividly remember the story of my dad's siblings finding a prescription for thalidomide in my grandmother's name after she passed away, written during her childbearing years. She had nine children altogether. (The prescription had never been filled.)

What makes my response to these types of headlines even more frustrating is the fact that I am someone who should have a reasoned approach to food and science. Having worked in Saskatchewan's agriculture industry for nearly a decade, I know how stringent Canada's food safety guidelines and regulations are.

As an agriculture communicator, I am also lucky to have access to some of the brightest minds in the Canadian agriculture/food research community. Because of this, I know some useful things about how the research world works. Through conversations with Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, I've come to embrace that science is not absolute.

Food research is treated like a buffet these days: people pick and choose what they want as they please.- Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie University professor

"One study in isolation really doesn't make science," he told me recently. "When you hear something that may be troubling for you, you need to take a step back and make sure you have an appreciation of the entire body of work supporting or analyzing the one issue you're looking at." Charlebois cautioned me against making broad conclusions from one study, such as the autism one.

"As soon as you start generalizing findings, you get into that danger of oversimplifying and that's really the issue that leads to misleading conclusions," he said.

Because food is an emotional topic, Seiferling says, it can lead people to make rash decisions based on what they read online. (Shutterstock)

Something else I have learned through my work and education is that food is an emotional topic. We often decide what products to buy and consume based on our psychological needs, including feeling safe, loved and validated, rather than on objective, rational criteria. Or, as Charlebois explained to me, "Food research is treated like a buffet these days: people pick and choose what they want as they please."

This could lead people to read something troubling and be tempted to throw out every product in their cupboards containing the offensive ingredient du jour.

This is exactly what I began doing after reading the autism study. But when I stumbled upon a package of crackers containing propionic acid, the ingredient at the centre of the study, I paused. Not only did I really want to eat them, but I also hate wasting food. 

More importantly, I know better.

But few people have easy access to food experts like Charlebois, which made me think: Is there a fundamental problem with the way we communicate science-related news around food and health to the general public? Are we sometimes missing a step between explaining what the science says and what that actually means for the general public?

In my opinion, yes.

Seiferling says academic institutions, researchers and writers, and media consumers all play a role in health information being interpreted and applied appropriately. (Shutterstock)

In the case of the article in question, the author and/or researcher could have included a couple of qualifiers about how the general public might wish to consider and use this information. For example: If you're a pregnant woman reading this, don't feel like you need to throw out every product in your cupboard just yet. (Ahem, duly noted).

There is also a responsibility at the academic level. Learning centres that offer scientific programs should include fundamental communications training as part of the curriculum.

The onus is on us, too, as consumers of mass media. Since the advent of the Internet we have come a long way in teaching people to be "media literate," which Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy partially defines as being able to analyze and evaluate media in a critical way.

But maybe that definition should be expanding with time. As we enjoy access to more and more in-depth information about the world around us, we also need to be aware that this is a privilege as much as a responsibility.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for opinion and point-of-view pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

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Delaney Seiferling is a communications consultant and writer, specializing in Saskatchewan agriculture.


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