Food misinformation and fake news? Science and sustainability communication efforts are expanding to end misreporting

Food sustainability and securing the future of our global food systems drive organizations in the research community to highlight the latest insights into food in an environmental context.

The confluence of several key industry factors and consumer behavior has led to the launch of several platforms providing information and education about food and its relationship to the environment.

Accuracy based on science

“Nutrition research is complex to conduct and interpret, yet there is a growing trend to seek quick and easy answers to improve our health and wellness.” ​Marie-Christine Thurm, Senior Communications 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’s a topic that affects us all, often with emotional connections, 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 products that match their values, “this shift in consumer preferences is driving food companies to adopt more sustainable practices to meet market demand,” ​Cathy Askew, managing director of IFIS Publishing, told FoodNavigator.

Issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and pollution have highlighted the need for sustainable practices in the food sector. “Ethical considerations play an important role in shaping the industry’s sustainability agenda,” Askew adds. Issues such as fair labor practices, animal welfare and fair supply chains are at the forefront of discussion.

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

The rise of information platforms

In 2022, Eurobarometer survey results show that almost half of respondents (49%) believe that public television and radio stations are the most trusted sources of news in the European Union (EU), followed by print media (39%) and then the private TV and radio stations (27%).

However, the challenge of scientific illiteracy remains, EUFIC reports describing “the potential distortion of scientific facts by the media and frequent oversimplified or sensationalized reporting” as leading to uncertainty and reduced trust.

In October 2023 alone, two research platforms were launched that seek to provide information and education in key areas of food research and transfer this knowledge to the food industry.

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

The findings reveal that the economics of sustainability linked to the food market, technological advances, policy-driven sustainability, environmental concerns, consumer-oriented approaches, agricultural innovation and plant-based solutions are the sustainability trends driving food research.

Designed to improve the quality of food-related reporting and counter food misinformation, EUFIC launched its Food Facts Center during 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 2,000 members.

“The Food Facts Network is needed because it helps raise the quality of public debate on food and health topics.” says Turm. The Center aims to do this by creating a place where people from both sides of the media, journalists and experts, can access reliable scientific communication.

In the case of the Food Facts Center, community managers help keep information flowing through newsletters or webinars that include networking sessions. “Collaboration between sectors is the best way to build consensus, bring clarity and act on misstatements and misinformation.”says Turm.

Reaching all areas of science communication

Commenting on how the new launch will break down silos in sustainability education in the food industry, Thurm elaborates that SFSN’s presence shows that there is a diverse group of stakeholders active in all parts of the food system. Several subgroups allow for more specific discussions, such as food facts.

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

Food Facts aims to give these journalists and media experts a space for mutual understanding and discussion on all related topics, including spotting false reports, scientific literacy and coming together to promote scientific information. It aims to provide a platform for the exchange of information between media and experts with a view to the field of healthy and sustainable nutrition, including topics that often appear in the news such as sugar, fat, food additives including sweeteners, processed food, obesity or diabetes.

“When misinformation appears in the news, the timing of reacting and fueling the debate with science-backed information is critical and, if not countered immediately, is likely to stick in people’s minds,” Thurm continues.

Food Facts works with a group of ambassadors who agree to answer questions about misreporting in science communication at short notice and help EUFIC produce articles that allow consumers to better understand the science behind the news. Follow-up Food Facts articles are then distributed to media professionals across Europe.

“In addition to ensuring good quality information, it is also critical to help users improve their scientific literacy skills.” ​Thurm adds, a topic covered in EUFIC’s recent Food and Health Literacy Campaign.

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