The Internet offers a wealth of useful health and nutrition information, and many take advantage of it. One in four Europeans surf the Net to find information about health(1). The opportunity, however, is not risk-free. Unfortunately, you will come across unreliable pieces on the web. Anyone can create a web page, to inform and educate… but also to misinform, sell or push a private agenda. Can you assume that regulatory bodies guarantee the quality of Internet information? Although it is true that the European Commission has issued more than 15 related directives in the last few years, enforcing them fully across Europe is an extremely difficult task. Besides, Internet provides access to content originating outside Europe, which might not be covered by EU legislation. As web users, how can we decide whether what we read is trustworthy and of good quality?
You can exercise the right judgment by answering two basic questions:
- Do the writers of the information really know what they are writing about?
- What is their motivation?
The answers are obvious in some cases. For example, some websites are clearly biased or not credible: highly promotional, sensationally written, poorly structured, without professional credentials or endorsement, BIG CAPITAL LETTERS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!! There are other websites that you immediately know you can trust, such as those from government agencies and universities. Their public service or scientific character is transparent and their purpose clearly legitimate. For most websites, you won’t be able to tell immediately whether they are sound and trustworthy. The safest strategy is to start your searches with reputable health and nutrition related portals and websites and, if needed, follow the links that will generally provide good-quality information. However, if you use a general purpose search engine like Google to look for food and health information, which may return thousands of sites, you will need some other tips for judging which ones provide legitimate information.
The European Commission has recently issued guidelines on quality criteria for health related websites. The criteria are:
Transparency, Honesty and Privacy
Information providers that show their names, physical and electronic addresses, telephone number, type of organisation (public, private, not-for-profit) and credentials, are willing to expose their identity. You may find these details on the home page or under the About us heading. Look for further signs of transparency and honesty, such as clear information about the target audience or the source of funding and endorsement (grants, commercial sponsors etc). A mission statement may explain the purpose and objective of the website’s organisation. Many websites aim to promote or sell products and services. This is a legitimate purpose, yet one you need to know. The real problem is not transparent publicity but disguised publicity. For example, be alert to the so-called “advertorials” - articles with a scientific feel but a commercial intent.
Authority and currency of updates
Also, check the credentials of the article’s author, the presence of bibliographical references, links to reputable partners and how recently the article was updated. Look for the editorial, security, and confidentiality policies – all signs of professionalism.
The website should also give the user the possibility to provide feedback, have responsible partnering or linking policies to ensure that only trustworthy individuals and organisations are taken on board.
The website should be user-friendly with an easy navigation, allowing people to find content easily, etc.
A healthy habit
Another good advice is to get into the habit of consulting and contrasting several nutrition and health web sources, where you are more likely to obtain balanced and useful information. Even if there is no total guarantee of the reliability of the sources and the trustworthiness of the information, you will be more likely to get an idea of the generally accepted view on the issue, which will provide you with a sound basis to make informed decisions about your health.
The European Opinion Research Group (EEIG). (Mars 2003) Eurobarometer 58.0. European Union citizens and sources of information about health. Available here.
Quality criteria for health websites from the European Commission. Available here.
"Separating fact from fiction in the web" Food Insight Newsletter, (May/June 2005) Available here.