A staggering amount of information about health and medicine is available online. It can be confusing and frustrating if you’re seeking info about a condition that affects your family or a beloved pet. Online information can also be dangerous because medical misinformation is unfortunately common there.
Social media in particular is rife with misinformation about medicine. This is partly because medical misinformation on social media platforms is seldom corrected. Without the expert reviews and fact-checking that are typical of traditional news media, radical ideas and misinformation can quickly spread to millions of people on social media. The computer algorithms of social media also help to spread the (mis)information to others who are prone to accepting it. Social media influencers are also part of the picture. Due to their large audiences, they influence public opinions on various topics — and they may have conflicts of interest, as in the following example.
The aspartame example
You may have read that a common artificial sweetener called aspartame may cause cancer. Aspartame is used in over 6,000 food items, according to a review of the sweetener by CNN. It’s in everything from zero-sugar sodas to sugar-free salad dressings, cocoa mixes, gelatins, and puddings. Some research has linked it to liver, breast, and lymphoma cancers as well as Type 2 diabetes, but it’s still approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If you search for online information on aspartame, you’ll undoubtedly find a wide variety of opinions. Some say “aspartame is good for you” and others say “aspartame will give you cancer.” Confusing!
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified aspartame as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B) based on “limited” evidence for cancer in humans. After the WHO report was published, a number of dietitians and health professionals came out on social media saying there were no health concerns with aspartame. But an expose by the Washington Post found that the dietitians did not disclose that they were paid to post the videos by American Beverage, a trade and lobbying group representing brands like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that use aspartame in zero-sugar sodas.
So should you avoid aspartame or not? The WHO’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives assessed the aspartame findings and concluded that “while safety is not a major concern at the doses which are commonly used, potential effects have been described that need to be investigated by more and better studies.” The committee reaffirmed that it’s safe for a person to consume up to 40 mg of aspartame per kg of body weight; for an adult weighing 70kg (154lbs), that would be up to 9-14 cans of a diet soft drink made with aspartame per day, assuming no other aspartame intake from other sources.
Evidence-based medicine instead of medical misinformation
The aspartame example illustrates why it’s so important to carefully vet any health and medical information you see online. To help you take charge of your health and separate fact from fiction, the Parsemus Foundation has an information webpage on Finding Evidence-Based Health Information. There you’ll find resources and methods for evaluating what you read or hear from websites and social media. We have also included tips on reading scientific publications on a health topic of interest.
Educating yourself about the health issues facing your family or pets is an important part of making the best medical decisions. Our new webpage will help you to root out medical misinformation. Then you can discuss your understanding of the health issue with your healthcare professional. This will help you better understand how current research findings may or may not apply to your situation.