People are getting advice and information on the benefits of antioxidants from commercial and news websites more than you might expect, a new study at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) and published in Frontiers in Public Health shows.
Researchers analysed the first 200 websites returned by Google when the term ‘antioxidants’ was searched. The analysis included the type of website (news, commercial, academic, health portals, not-for-profit, government etc), the medical condition mentioned (aging, immunity, neurological disease, diabetes, arthritis etc) and the website’s stance towards antioxidants (neutral, positive or negative).
The study found that whether websites provided balanced information varied with the type of website. In particular, websites of news or TV outlets often had a negative view of taking antioxidant supplements, while not questioning that the antioxidants found in fresh fruit are good for us. The only websites that did not mention potential side effects of antioxidant supplements were those which are commercially focused: they often sell antioxidant supplements and promote the perceived healing and preventative powers, more than any other type of websites.
Professor Pietro Ghezzi, Chair of Experimental Medicine at BSMS, who led the research, said: “Antioxidants make up a huge proportion of the lucrative market of health supplements, making promises to ‘boost our immune system’ or ensure ‘healthy aging’. However, while their effect is an important area of medical research, there is not yet solid enough scientific evidence, which is why the NHS does not prescribe them and it would be unusual for a doctor to recommend them, except for the very rare cases of vitamin deficiencies, such as scurvy. The results of this study have highlighted just how often we learn about antioxidants from websites that exist for commercial gain. That said, commercial websites are ranked low by Google, which probably detects the lower quality of the information provided.”
The study also found that cancer was the most frequently discussed disease in relation to antioxidants, followed by cardiovascular and eye diseases. However, almost half of the websites that mentioned antioxidants and cancer did so to report that antioxidant supplements may increase cancer growth. However, the commercial websites analysed did not mention this, and had a greater focus on antioxidants’ effects on aging and immunity, which may be more difficult to disprove.
Professor Ghezzi added: “The notion that antioxidant supplements can prevent or even cure many diseases has become extremely popular in recent years. However, when looking online for health information, it is important to consider the source of this information and make an informed decision on whether the content is entirely objective and reliable.”
The study ‘Online information on antioxidants. Information quality indicators, commercial interests and ranking by Google’ by Prof Pietro Ghezzi, Romaan Aslam and Daniel Gibbons is available to read on Open Access by Frontiers Digital Health here >