As part of the NutriNet-Santé study, researchers from the University of Paris 13 and Avicenne Hospital in France sought to address the extent of consumer reliance on the internet for health and nutrition information.
They said 70% of European and American citizens regularly use the internet for health-related purposes and a past US survey showed the majority of respondents would go to the internet first for specific disease information on the likes of cancer.
While the internet was a valuable tool, the researchers highlighted the dangers of unreliable information and said few studies had investigated online searches for nutrition issues.
“The Internet is a valuable platform for the diffusion of reliable and valid health and nutrition information by public health institutions. However, the Internet also hosts a large number of websites and forums related to health and nutrition issues with content that is not always trustworthy or certified by experts and quality labels,” they wrote in the British Journal of Nutrition.
In this latest study, a self-administered, online questionnaire was completed by 42,113 participants with a mean age of 51.2 years, 76% of which were women.
The results showed 85.1% of the respondents used the internet to search for health and/or nutrition information, and 23.6% used the internet to read or post messages on health/nutrition forums.
Only 16% discussed this information found online with a health care professional, with this proportion falling for people with lower educational level and lower computer skills.
A total of 8038 different health/nutrition websites were cited by participants, with institutional websites representing just 12.9% of this figure.
Older subjects, those with lower educational level and lower nutritional knowledge were more likely to cite non-institutional websites as their online source of information.
“This large population-based study showed that institutional websites were infrequently accessed and that a few participants discussed the information found online with their healthcare professional.
“This particular trend was especially visible among individuals who were more vulnerable regarding misleading information. This supports the need to increase awareness of high-quality websites providing reliable health/nutrition information.”
The researchers said Facebook pages and videos could be used by public health stakeholders to boost online engagement.
They said the phenomenon of consulting the internet for such health information was only set to increase.
In France, 78% of the population had access to the internet in 2012 – a percentage that rose to 96% among adults under 30.
Source: British Journal of Nutrition
Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1017/S0007114516001355
“Seeking health- and nutrition-related information on the Internet in a large population of French adults: results of the NutriNet-Santé study”
Authors: P. Fassier, A. S. Chhim, V. A. Andreeva, S. Hercberg, P. Latino-Martel, C. Pouchieu and M. Touvier