Food misinformation and fake news? Scientific and sustainable communication efforts expand to end misreporting

By Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

- Last updated on GMT

New platforms are launching to provide information and education on food and its relationship with the environment. GettyImages/pcess609
New platforms are launching to provide information and education on food and its relationship with the environment. GettyImages/pcess609

Related tags Sustainability

Environmental food hubs emerge online to spread accurate scientific information and education on sustainability in food to convey credible research.

Food sustainability and securing the future of our global food systems are propelling organisations in the research community to highlight the latest insights on food in the context of the environment. 

The congruence of several key industry factors and consumer behaviours has seen several platforms launch, providing information and education on food and its relationship with the environment.

Accuracy based on science

“Nutrition research is complex to carry out and interpret, yet there is an increasing tendency to seek quick and easy answers to improve our health and wellness,” ​Marie-Christine Thurm, Senior Communication Manager at the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), told FoodNavigator.

Today’s digital information environment allows anyone to share and access information online. Consumers eat food every day, so it is, therefore, a topic that affects us all, often with emotional links, she continues. Together, these factors make food information and education “an area that is very prone to sharing misinformation and fake news,” ​Thurm adds.

Yet, consumers are increasingly making choices based on sustainability and ethical considerations. With a preference for food items that align with their values, “this shift in consumer preferences is driving food companies to adopt more sustainable practices to meet market demand”, ​Katy Askew, Managing Director of IFIS Publishing, told FoodNavigator.

Issues like climate change, resource scarcity, and pollution have spotlighted the need for sustainable practices in the food sector. “Ethical concerns play a significant role in shaping the industry’s sustainability agenda,” ​Askew adds. Issues like fair labour practices, humane treatment of animals, and equitable supply chains are at the forefront of discussions.

The regulatory landscape is also evolving to incorporate sustainability considerations. “Governments and international bodies are introducing measures to encourage more responsible production and consumption,” ​adds Askew. Regulations related to food safety, labelling, waste reduction, and sustainable sourcing are prevalent. “Food industry stakeholders must adapt to these changing legal requirements,”​ Askew details.

The rise of information platforms

In 2022, Eurobarometer survey results indicate that almost half of those asked (49%) believe public TV and radio stations are the top trusted news sources in the European Union (EU), followed by the written press (39%), and then private TV and radio stations (27%).

However, the challenge of scientific illiteracy remains, EUFIC reported, describing “the potential distortion of scientific facts by the media and the frequent over-simplified or sensationalised reporting” ​as leading to uncertainty and reduced trust.

In October 2023 alone, two research platforms launched, seeking to provide information and education on key areas of food research and communicate this knowledge to the food industry.

IFIS Publishing announced the arrival of its environmental-focused database, IFIS Sustainability, which strives to accelerate the transformation of global food systems through knowledge-sharing and collaboration. After conducting keyword analysis of over 10,000 records indexed in the database, the food research publisher identified seven leading food sustainability trends in scientific research.

The findings reveal that the economics of sustainability relating to the food market, technological advancements, policy-driven sustainability, ecological concerns, consumer-centric approaches, agricultural innovations and plant-based solutions are the sustainability trends driving food research.

Designed to enhance the quality of food-related reporting and counter food misinformation, EUFIC launched its Food Facts hub during the Global Media and Information Literacy Week. It is part of the Sustainable Food System Network (SFSN), which was initiated in 2020 to connect those interested in transforming European food systems and currently has over 2000 members.

“The Food Facts network is needed because it helps to increase the quality of the public debate on food and health-related topics,” ​says Thurm. The hub aims to do this by creating a place where those from both sides of the media, journalists and experts, can access reliable scientific communication.

In the case of the Food Facts hub, community managers help maintain the flow of information through newsletters or webinars that include networking sessions. “Collaboration across sectors is the best way to determine consensus, bring clarity and act upon misrepresentations and misinformation,”​ says Thurm.

Reaching all areas of scientific communication

Commenting on how the new launch will break down silos in sustainability education in the food industry, Thurm details that the presence of SFSN indicates there is a diverse group of stakeholders active in all parts of the food system. Several sub-groups allow more specific discussions, such as Food Facts.

“On the one hand, journalists can easily find experts who are interested in science communication and therefore open to giving quotes and background information for articles or posts,” ​says Thurm. “On the other hand, it allows experts to understand media better and increase their experience with science communication in general, a much-needed skill in today’s academic world,” ​Thurm adds.

Food Facts seeks to give these journalists and media experts a space for mutual understanding and discussions on all related topics, including spotting misreporting, science literacy, and teaming up to promote scientific information. It aims to provide a platform for the exchange of information between media and experts with insights into the realm of healthy and sustainable nutrition, including topics that often appear in the news, such as sugar, fats, food additives including sweeteners, processed food, obesity or diabetes.

“When misinformation appears in the news, the timing to react and feed the debate with science-backed information is crucial and, if not immediately counteracted, is likely to stay in people’s memory,” ​Thurm continues.

Food Facts works with a group of ambassadors, who agree to answer questions on misreporting in scientific communication on short notice and help EUFIC draft articles that allow consumers to better understand the science behind the news. The subsequent Food Facts articles are then distributed to media professionals across Europe.

“Next to ensuring good quality of information, it is also crucial to help consumers improve their science literacy skills,” ​Thurm adds, a topic covered in EUFIC’s recent Food and Health Science Literacy Campaign. 

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