1 August 2017


There’s a bit of a myth doing the rounds that ours is an era of fake news. There’s nothing new about fake news. Certainly not when it comes to food and health. Most old wives’ tales were “fake news” back in the day. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is a maxim that likely started as marketing promo for Welsh apples in the mid nineteenth century. The first mention seems to be in Notes and Queries magazine (February 1866) which cites a so-called Pembrokeshire (Wales) proverb. “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you'll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”

It would be nice to think there’s a grain of truth in “an apple a day,” after all, they are rich in soluble fibre and vitamin C and deserve star billing. Sadly, the findings of a study based on actual nutrition data collected from nearly 8400 men and women — 753 of whom ate an apple a day — and that followed rigorous study methods concludes: “Evidence does not support that an apple a day keeps the doctor away; however, the small fraction of US adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications”.

How about “carrots help you see in the dark”? After all, they are seriously rich in beta-carotene that converts to vitamin A in the body and a deficiency of vitamin A does cause night blindness. Promoting carrots as a Super Veg with power to improve night-time vision was British wartime propaganda to get people to grow more veg and eat more carrots (they are easy to grow) because there were food shortages. “Somewhere on the journey the message that carrots are good for your eyes became disfigured into improving eyesight,” says John Stolarczyk, curator of the virtual World Carrot Museum (yes, there is one and it’s well worth looking at).

Carrot promotions

What is new, is that fake news, urban myths and misinformation spread farther and faster than ever before thanks to “lightning-quick news cycles and algorithm-determined social media feeds” says Rachel Visontay in an Opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. “There is no simple cure once we are exposed [to fake news],” she says “because the effects cannot be fully overcome by just promoting fact. Hanging on to mistaken beliefs or fictions occurs not just when people don't want to change their minds – our brains are actually bad at updating information even when we’re trying to. Using the terminology of some researchers, misinformation is really ‘sticky’.”

What to do about it? “When a myth has been so oft- and long-repeated, it will be called to mind very easily. To have any chance of winning out, facts need the same repetitive treatment,” she says. “We can never fully eliminate the impact of misinformation. People and institutions in positions of influence should try harder to put out only truth, because we are much better at learning than unlearning. But there will always be those who knowingly dress fiction as fact. Science tells us how to loosen their grip on us.”

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