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Ultra-processed information: Digesting health and nutritional data

Someone could be stranded in the meal deal aisle for hours, weighing up the vast amount of nutritional data presented to them
Someone could be stranded in the meal deal aisle for hours, weighing up the vast amount of nutritional data presented to them

Data expert Caroline Carruthers discusses how improved levels of literacy are needed for the public to digest the vast amount of food and nutritional data now available.

“What’s for lunch?”

Twenty years ago, this was a pretty simple question. There was an understanding that people needed certain levels of vitamins, minerals, calories, fruit and vegetables to stay healthy. But the amount of information available about food and diet then is incomparable to what’s available now.

From colour codes to printed calories, to lists of confusing ingredients, colours, preservatives and additives, someone could be stranded in the meal deal aisle for hours, weighing up the vast amount of nutritional data presented to them around what they’re about to consume for lunch.

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Simultaneously, health and nutrition are dominating the news agenda. For example, the ongoing, heated debate around the potential evils (or not) of ultra-processed foods (UPF), has led to even more data being released about what the public should look out for.

A year on from the publication of Chris van Tulleken’s “Ultra-Processed People,” data expert Caroline Carruthers tells City A.M. that improved levels of data literacy are needed for the public to digest the vast amount of food and health data available.

She says: “This is not a negative thing. I’ve worked in data for over a decade, and I honestly believe it does save lives, whether that be the NHS using data to address health inequalities, or someone analysing data to make informed, healthier choices.

“However, the most important thing when working with data, is, making it make sense, and taking a targeted approach.

“Data fatigue kicks in when someone is presented with too much, unrelated, and often conflicting data, making the experience overwhelming, and often meaning people disengage altogether. Yes, we can understand the colour-coded label on food, but what do the numbers on it mean for us, the individual?”

Unpacking ultra-processed data

There are key reasons why we need to be data literate which go beyond gaining a better understanding of the sandwich aisle in a supermarket.

For example, recognising misinformation. Research has found that 87 per cent of Millennials and Gen Z TikTok users have turned to the platform for nutrition and health advice, while 57 per cent report that they are influenced by or frequently adopt nutrition trends they’ve found on the platform.

Caroline says: “To engage with this kind of content effectively, individuals need to learn to recognise accurate data versus disinformation. Misinformation online is at an all-time high, with AI and deep fakes also increasing the risk that individuals will distrust credible sources of information, and make uninformed decisions.

“To combat this, the public needs to be data literate. This means checking sources, cross-referencing information and critically thinking about what they are hearing and seeing.”

As well as this, we need a good level of data literacy to ensure our health data is secure online. This also includes understanding the terms and conditions we are agreeing to when sharing health information, such as heart rate or nutritional breakdown with third-party apps, otherwise data security could be at risk.

Caroline says: “Having more data available about what’s in the food we eat and our health is a brilliant development. But, for the public to reap the rewards, this data needs to have meaning behind it.

“If consumers’ data literacy levels can be improved to the point where people can get value from the data presented, spot misinformation and analyse terms and conditions and data security issues, I believe that the health of our generation could be vastly improved.”