There's an old episode of Arthur—you know, the glasses-wearing aardvark on PBS—that tackles the issue of finding trustworthy information online. Arthur suspects that his pal Buster has been gathering fabricated information from the World Wide Web. Buster responds, animated face aghast, saying: "You really think someone would do that—just go on the Internet and tell lies?"
Oh yes, you naïve little rabbit. People do tell lies on the Internet. And the lies about food and nutrition are some of the worst you'll ever come across.
We're talking about all the posts you find on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest that attribute incredible health benefits to eating certain foods, like "Use bone broth for anxiety!" or "Green peas are anti-aging!" Sounds great, right?
Here's the issue: Many of these claims are not supported by any scientific evidence (including the two listed above).
What gives? We turned to David Scahrdt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for insight.
"Social media is a great thing. It's lowered barriers so people can freely express their opinions, but when it comes to health and nutrition, that lowering of the barrier means a lot of people are disseminating information that's not well-established," he said.
And when we're presented with easy, natural "solutions" to our most daunting health challenges, we almost can't help but fall for the claims.
"People are suspicious of the healthcare system. They often leave the doctor's office feeling frustrated," Schardt explained. "So people look to other therapies—natural ones that their friends or some health guru have told them about online. There's definitely an appeal. If there's one food that's going to make you well, who wouldn't want to try it?"
The truth is that reversing or preventing diseases is rarely that simple—and, as Buster learned, the Internet is rife with lies. So how you protect yourself from all the BS?
Schardt suggested applying the classic litmus test you already use for shady Craiglist offers and Tinder profiles: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Second, follow the money. Who is the original poster of the information: A manufacturer trying to sell food? A blogger trying to push books and DVDs? If you sense you're being sold something, you can reliably assume the claims are overblown and possibly untrue.
And finally, you've got to know what to look for. Fine-tune your BS detector by browsing this sampling of totally unsupported claims we found during a few recent visits to Pinterest:
Cranberry Juice Cures UTIs!
While it's true that cranberries contain a compound that prevents bacteria from sticking to bladder walls, there's still no strong evidence that the stuff prevents UTI recurrence or reduces the length of existing infections, compared to placebo. Don't chug cranberry juice and hope that burning will just disappear: Leaving a UTI untreated could lead to a more serious kidney infection and other complications. Plus, most cranberry juice is pumped full of sugar in order to be palatable. No thanks.
Lemon Water Boosts the Immune System!
We've already established that lemon water doesn't actually help you lose weight in and of itself. But what about the claim that it wards off sickness?
"It's just nonsense," Schardt said. "There's no credible evidence—particularly in people in the United States who are generally well nourished and eating more than enough food—that anything they're eating or any pill they're taking is going to have a significant effect on their immune system or their ability to fight off disease."
This Juice Cleanse Will Prevent Acne and Cancer and Strengthen Your Liver and Kidneys!
Juice cleanses are a lot of things, but "healthy" probably isn't one of them. Most of physiological effects of juice fasting are seriously unpleasant—and there's precious little research to support the positive claims. That only benefits science has shown? Lower blood sugar, lower insulin levels, and reduced blood pressure while you're cleansing. Anything beyond that is still unsupported by evidence.
Goji Berries Boost Sexual Function, Enhance Vision, and Promote Longevity!
Goji berries are high in vitamins A and C and can be part of a healthy diet just like any other fruit—but they're not some wild cure-all. A 2014 review in the Journal of Dietary Supplements concluded that the scant human studies on the berry have been poorly designed with few participants and mixed results.
Honey and Cinnamon Cures Cancer, Arthritis, Indigestion, Fatigue, Bladder Infection, Bad Breath, Hearing Loss…
Um, what? If all it took to cure cancer was a little honey and cinnamon, would we really be facing an estimated 589,430 cancer deaths in the U.S. this year? Probably not. (We're not even going to touch the "hearing loss" claim.)
Apples, Beets, Watermelon, Cauliflower, and Cucumbers (and More) Are Negative Calorie Foods!
The idea of negative calorie foods—that some foods are so low in calories that we burn more calories digesting them than they actually contain—has been around for years.
"But it's not really been demonstrated [in research]," Schardt said. (But keep on eating those low-cal fruits and veggies—they may not have negative calories, but they're still good for you!)
Himalayan Salt Creates a Healthy Libido and Reduces Signs of Aging!
We searched long and hard through research databases looking for evidence to back up these claims—all to no avail. The only thing we can confirm? Salt is still delicious.
Lazy Way to Lose Weight: 1 Cup Warm Water, 1 Teaspoon Cinnamon, and 2 Teaspoons Honey!
This one's a head scratcher. Maybe you'll lose weight if you replace a daily 150-calorie can of soda with this 48-calorie concoction. But drinking any kind of sweetened water (without changing any other part of your lifestyle) is obviously not a sound weight-loss strategy. Plus, new research shows that honey is just as bad for you as table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, because sugar is sugar is sugar.
Lemon and Baking Soda for Cancer: Powerful Healing Combination!
Say it with us now: Too good to be true.