Pinterest Rife With Misleading Cancer Nutrition Info

Megan Brooks

April 22, 2022

Pinterest is packed with misleading cancer-related nutrition information, a new analysis shows.

A user searching for "recipes for cancer" or "cancer recipes" on the site would have a 1 in 3 chance of linking to a page selling a product or service and a 95% chance of seeing content making a health claim, researchers found.

Nearly 42% of the content claimed to prevent, 27% claimed to treat, and almost 11% purported to cure cancer.

"We were certainly surprised at the sheer number of health claims made on these posts," co–lead researcher Margaret Raber, MPH, DrPH, with Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, told Medscape Medical News. The finding was especially surprising, "given that Pinterest's community guidelines specifically limit medically unsupported health claims.

"It is critical for providers to acknowledge the issue of nutrition misinformation online and encourage patients to discuss information they find with their physician," Raber added.

The study was published online April 5 in the journal Cancer.

The team's previous research has revealed that the most common type of cancer misinformation circulating on social media deals with cancer nutrition.

In the current study, Raber and colleagues explored the scale and characteristics of cancer-related nutrition information on Pinterest, a social media platform particularly friendly to nutrition and recipe content but that explicitly asks users not to post "misleading content" or "unsolicited commercial or advertising messages."

The analysis included a total of 103 unique "pins." Each pin was coded for 58 variables, including cancer claims — such as treatment, prevention, and cure — and nutrition-specific claims — such as "turmeric cures cancer." On average, pinners had more than 116,000 followers, although some had as many as 1.5 million.

Overall, the researchers found that few content creators disclosed any health- or nutrition-related credentials (18%). And more than two thirds (68%) of creators were generating or attempting to generate a profit. Although most pins linked to recipes (73%), close to half (49%) were selling products or services directly on the pages linked from pins.

These products and services included nutritional supplements, food products, cookbooks, wellness coaching, and speaking services. Non-recipe content included articles and book promotions.

While the intended audience for the pins was broad, many targeted patients and caregivers (44%). Breast cancer was the most common cancer type referenced (12%).

Health claims were common, with content that claimed to prevent (42%), treat (27%) or cure (11%) cancer. Roughly 40% made vague claims using terminology such as "anti-cancer," "cancer-fighting," and "cancer cell killing."

Specific health claims fell into three main categories: cancer-related health concerns/symptoms (including weight loss and energy), food and food components (such as antioxidants and herbs), and general health food claims (such as being organic and natural).

Eleven pins (11%) made direct claims that food- or diet-based therapies were a feasible, in some cases preferable, alternative to conventional cancer treatment. Pins also included academic or government citations (28%), disclaimers (36%), and personal anecdotes (22%).

"The results demonstrate the pervasiveness of health claims with questionable validity in cancer-related recipes on Pinterest," the authors write. And considering the severity of many cancer diagnoses, "patients with cancer and caregivers may be especially vulnerable to cancer nutrition misinformation as they seek to exert personal control over their situation."

It is important to recognize that this type of information exists on a spectrum.

"It is unlikely that ginger lollipops claiming to reduce nausea will cause harm, while articles claiming that ginger is more powerful than chemotherapy are more concerning," Raber told Medscape Medical News. "We found both of these in our sample."

Plus, Raber added, Pinterest is likely not the only social media site in which dubious cancer-related nutrition information is slipping past misinformation detection systems.

What's the solution?

"There is no clear solution to the issue of online nutrition misinformation," co–lead researcher Echo Warner, PhD, MPH, with University of Utah College of Nursing, Salt Lake City, told Medscape Medical News. "There are two things that are probably not going to change anytime soon — people using the internet to find health information, and people sharing bad information online."

But, Warner noted, recognizing that online cancer nutrition misinformation is a problem is the first step. "We can work to empower users, especially vulnerable populations such as cancer patients, with patient education resources and tools to help them navigate this content," Warner said.

Consequences of Dubious Nutrition Claims

Reached for comment, Shelley Maniscalco, MPH, RDN, member of the American Society for Nutrition, said the amount of nutrition misinformation online is "very concerning, particularly in a cancer population.

"Much of the time, the information is presented in a way that seems very intuitively true and/or includes anecdotes that make it more relatable," said Maniscalco, founder of Nutrition on Demand, a Washington, DC–based company that provides nutritional support to national organizations, individuals, and families. "Unfortunately, neither of these factors guarantees that the information is science- or evidence-based, which it often isn't."

Nutrition misinformation can have severe consequences. It can interfere with the efficacy of a treatment regimen, waste a patient's money, provide false hope, and even lead to treatment discontinuation. If, for example, a patient is juicing and experiences significant weight loss, a practitioner may need to halt their cancer treatment.

"Misinformation is never a good thing," Maniscalco said.

The study was supported by a University of Arizona postdoctoral research development grant and in part by the National Cancer Institute, the US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship, and the Duncan Family Institute. Raber is an unpaid board member of CookLab (nonprofit). Echo and Maniscalco have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Cancer. Published online April 5, 2022. Abstract

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