Last month, a 39-year-old influencer named Zhanna Samsonov died in a Malaysian hospital after catching a cholera-like infection, as her mother told The Sun. Samsonova, who went by Zhanna D’Art online, was following an extreme and unbalanced all-fruit diet—and sharing her recipes on Instagram.
On August 15, YouTube announced its long-term plans to battle medical misinformation on its platform, aligning with guidance on extremely fraught topics with IRL risks, like the pandemic, vaccines, reproductive health, and cancer treatment. YouTube specifically calls out cancer as a topic prone to misinformation, and says that now videos featuring claims like that garlic can cure cancer, or that radiation can be skipped for a vitamin C supplement, would be removed.
On the same day YouTube rolled out its plan, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing 52 doctors—out of 1 million Americans who hold a medical license—spread COVID-19 misinformation on social media between January 2021 and December 2022.
A subset of this medical misinformation is something that Stephan Guyenet, PhD, calls “nutrition misinformation.” Guyenet, a former researcher in the fields of obesity and neuroscience and author wrote an article in March for Asterisk Magazine calling attention to this specific flavor of fake news, and tried to estimate its body count.
According to the rough (and footnoted and caveated) model, between 4,000 and 127,000 Americans are killed by nutrition misinformation yearly. So it’s either really bad, or really really bad.
Guyenet is the director of Red Pen Reviews, a nonprofit that assesses the accuracy and validity of popular nutrition books. An analysis from the nonprofit found no correlation between its overall information quality score and its Amazon rating—and Guyenet argues that there is no dependable way for the general public to clock the quality of these books or nutrition media in general.
In the Asterisk article, Guyenet highlights the role that the media plays in nutrition misinformation, parroting PR talking points without any of the caveats or limitations noted in the actual studies. But it’s not only the media’s fault. As Guyenet points out, “research suggests that academic press releases are a major part of the problem,” as findings are sometimes exaggerated or stripped of nuance—then baby-birded to a broader audience in an even more exaggerated headline.
Though it’s not a silver bullet, regulation of claims on our foods and supplements “is a vast dam holding back a churning sea of nonsense,” Guyenet says.
YouTube’s new plan might be another piece of duct tape on this dam, though the platform is arguably one of the biggest contributors to the water pushing up against it.