Pizza for Cancer Prevention? Mining Twitter for Popular Nutrition and Cancer Myths

I am not a cancer expert.canstockphoto6433880

So when I want to get a sense of the state of research related to nutrition and cancer I turn to resources like the AICR. But many people don’t know about such resources, and this is reflected in cancer knowledge. For instance, the AICR’s own survey found that 42% of Americans don’t think that a healthy diet can reduce cancer risk, and fewer are aware of associations with specific foods such as processed meat.

What resources are people visiting, and what are they talking about? One way to get a glimpse of this is to mine Twitter, which I did for the last couple weeks, collecting about 420,000 tweets containing the word “cancer”. From these, I used the list of terms and their derivatives from this AICR/WCRF report, along with other health related terms that I came up with (82 in total) to assemble a list of 14,585 tweets for analysis of the links being posted.

Of links being tweeted, I weighted them by the number of followers that they were potentially exposed to. Below are some of the top that are related to nutrition or activity and cancer. These are disturbing sources being exposed to hundreds of thousands of people.

URL

Potential Exposure (# followers)

Comment

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/09/14/chewing-gum-cancer-risk.aspx

612,307

A bad article claiming ingredients like aspartame in gum cause cancer. Mercola is probably the worst health source on the web, campaigning against effective medical treatments like vaccines while promoting extremely misleading information on almost any nutrition related topic.

http://www.phifoundation.org/cancer-treatment-and-cancer-prevention.html

356,812

Site claims “natural cures” to cancer, and promotes poor information and books.

http://www.nickcampos.com/2012/04/the-evolution-of-health-science/

208,594

Odd rant criticizing the American Cancer Society for their position against supplementation for cancer while promoting “self-healing” with vitamins.

http://www.naturalnews.com/032988_sulforaphane_cancer_cells.html

130,646

Natural News is probably the 2nd worst health source on the web, claiming natural cures for all sorts of diseases while promoting paranoid, anti-establishment views. Extremely dangerous to public health, and unfortunately very popular.

http://www.naturalnews.com/039970_cancer_junk_food_carcinogens.html

92,186

Yet another from Natural News, this one a highly inaccurate list of cancer-causing foods.

Looking at the top 5 nutrition related terms from the full set of tweets, they appear to be driven by 2 items. The first is a tweet from a popular “fact” account that claims green tea + white mushrooms can reduce breast cancer risk by 89% – which does not give a source but is likely this epidemiological study in Chinese women. This is rather irresponsible without context or a source, and single studies are never conclusive. In fact, Schoenfield and Ioannidis found in 2012 that just about any ingredient in a cookbook has at least 1 study associating it with cancer, though many are implausible and subsequent research usually weakens or removes the effect. Media reports about intravenous vitamin C and chemotherapy based on a new study that has many caveats and red flags makes vitamin the top word.

 

vitamin

eat

drink

mushrooms

tea

Of tweets containing cancer, I looked at some word associations to explore what some diet or activity words are commonly linked. For an example of how to read this, cancer tweets containing “eat” also contain “pizza” 65% of the time.

“eat”

Term

pizza

mushrooms

drink

green tea

% tweets with eat + term

65%

38%

20%

16%

Looking through the tweets, these words are all largely influenced by popular twitter accounts promoting pizza to reduce cancer risk, or the above green tea + white mushrooms tweet.

“supplement”

Term

antioxidants

broccoli

% tweets with supplement + term

29%

17%

“Antioxidants” comes from a tweet claiming antioxidants in bread crust can combat cancer. That is a generous extrapolation to humans to say the least.

 

“nutrition”

Term

veggie

broccoli

% tweets with nutrition + term

45%

17%

Finally, these were actually pretty good and support current consensus.

Below I plotted the locations of the people tweeting about cancer, who are clearly largely in the US. This likely reflects the diverse social media platforms around the world, something to consider for public health organizations and health professionals trying to target specific populations.

Twitter can be a good platform for disseminating information but is currently most influenced in the cancer area by non-credible sources. Although it is common sense that the internet in general can be a cesspool of misinformation, a dive into some popular sources reinforce that effective health communicators are still urgently needed to popularize and provide credible information to those who seek it and address common cancer myths on social media.

Colby Vorland, MSc is a nutrition science graduate student. He blogs about various research topics in nutrition at http://www.nutsci.org and is on Twitter @nutsci.


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