With an eye on the food allergy community as a unique group of consumers since 2008, we're on a quest to find and share ways to continue enjoying the good things in life.

10 July 2016

How to Evaluate Online Food Allergy Information Sources

If you have been following Food Allergy Buzz this year, you are probably familiar with our theme of empowering yourself with food allergy knowledge. You know the old saying "knowledge is power"? This is true in so many things, and being well-informed about your food allergies can make managing them much easier. When my son was first diagnosed, there was minimal information available online, so I learned about food allergies the old-fashioned way--reading books. There were only a few blogs at that time, but I read them and was comforted by the fact other people were dealing with the same situation. I didn't know anyone personally who was managing food allergies, and I couldn't get to the nearest support group meetings.

Today, there is a plethora of food allergy information online. That's a good thing and a bad thing. It's good in the sense that all the information you might need is at your fingertips; and it's bad because there is a great deal of inaccurate and false information available on very professional looking websites and blogs, and in Facebook food allergy groups with sizable memberships.

What's a food allergy newbie to do? Well, you need to know how to sift through the information. Freedom of speech means everyone is entitled to a voice. As consumers managing food allergies, it is vital that we be able to sort through the many voices. Don't just assume an authoritative-sounding, popular source is accurate or reliable. Sometimes, they aren't! Here are a few simple steps that can help you sort through it all.

Step 1. Consider the source. 
Who is the publisher? Are they reputable? What are their credentials or qualifications? Is the publisher:
  • an allergist or other physician?
  • a dietician or nutritionist?
  • major non-profit food allergy organization?
  • a chef?
  • a book author?
  • a food allergy business?
  • a food allergy parent or adult managing his or her own food allergies?
Always consider the source of the information.

Step 2. Motivation and bias. 
This is a biggie. What is the blogger's motivation for writing? Who or what company funds their blog? Do they sell something? Do they make money from advertisers? Are they sharing facts--such as statistical or scientifically proven information--or opinion?

Physicians sometimes blog to share helpful information about how to manage allergies or to dispel common misconceptions. Perhaps he or she is trying to gain exposure as an expert on the subject. A dietician or nutritionist's motivation could be similar. In addition, he or she may have a private business and be using the blog to connect with potential customers. Food allergy parents or adults managing their own food allergies typically write to share their experiences and connect with others in similar situations. Food allergy businesses--like other businesses--use blogs as marketing tools. It's like an infomercial or advertorial. 

It's extremely important to have an awareness of a blog publisher's motivation and bias, so you can correctly assess the value and reliability of the information contained in his or her blog posts. Lakeland Community College's Library has an excellent PDF with simple, easy-to-follow directions on how to evaluate sources. I have included some of my favorite tips from their page in this blog post. Watch out for the following red flags:
  • "persuasive or loaded language". Loaded language is "using words and sentences that solicit a positive or negative response from the reader or that lead the reader to the specific conclusion." 
  • inaccurate or poor paraphrasing or summarizing of the original source
  • selective facts--using only some of the facts but omitting others to lead the reader to a particular conclusion
Bottom line? Remember, blog posts are frequently examples of persuasive writing, especially those written by businesses. It's the nature of the beast--for businesses, blogs are fantastic marketing tools! That means you have to take it with a grain of salt, and read it knowing they are not objective news sources. Any decent business will readily admit to that. They're trying to make a buck. (and good for them!)
3. Accuracy
This is so important!! It comes down to trust. Can you trust the publisher? Is the publisher's information accurate? Can it be verified by other reliable sources? If not, avoid!

If an article or blog post is merely summarizing a press release or other article, just visit the original source! Read the original article, study, survey, etc. yourself, instead of reading someone else's analysis or summary of it. It is so much better to read it yourself without someone else's bias coloring the facts.
Once a publisher has lost his or her credibility due to inaccurate information, beware! They cannot be trusted. A few months ago, many in the food allergy community took blog posts about Keebler authored by a food allergy business as fact. Hindsight 20/20, it is clear the dramatic and fear-inducing headlines regarding the addition of peanut flour to certain snacks manufactured by Keebler were a marketing strategy.Those headlines and blog posts used "loaded language"--a big red flag!

Unfortunately, many food allergy parents, especially those of children with peanut allergies, took the bait. There was even a petition against Keebler. An article entitled Buzz Marketing with Petitions by Portent explains how petitions are used as marketing tools--"Buzz Marketing is essentially the art of pumping so much emotion into your readers, that they feel the need to shout your message from the nearest rooftop." That certainly was the case with the exaggerated and inaccurate information which was delivered in the Keebler blog posts. Again, while food allergy businesses play a very important role in the food allergy community, they are not news sources, and we need to remember that. 

Another red flag
*There are non-food allergy related businesses that set up sites with food allergy and other medical-subject articles copied from other sources and press releases. Their mission is to attract website visitors and make money from advertisers. These sites are sometimes referred to as scraper sites. Please don't support these plagiarizing sites with your clicks/web traffic.*

More on evaluating sources
Please don't just take my word for it. Do your own investigating. My goal in this blog post is to plant the seed, and encourage you to dig deeper! Below are some good articles and resources about how to evaluate sources. There are many more available. Just Google "evaluating websites" or "evaluating internet resources" or something similar. Good luck, and feel free to share any good resources you use in the comments below!

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