Episode 62 – Interview with nutrition misinformation expert Emily Denniss

This week we were thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Emily Denniss who is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University. Her research is focused nutrition communication and misinformation on social media and how social media is used by young adults to seek information about food and nutrition. Emily also teaches into undergraduate public health and nutrition science units at Deakin and gave us lots of food for thought about understanding online misinformation.

You can follow Emily and learn more about her work here:


Jen (00:00:20)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:47)
Hello everybody, a very warm welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm, my favourite place to be.
And as ever I am joined by one of my very, very favourite people. Hello Michael.

Michael (00:00:59)
Hey Jen, I’m doing very well this morning. I’m very excited for today’s episode because we have a very special guest today.
I would like to introduce you to Emily Denniss who is a PhD candidate at Deakin University within the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition where I’m also based which is kind of how I came across you Emily.
And the topic of your PhD which is really interesting and that is communication and misinformation in nutrition science on social media.
I think that’s fascinating. You know, it’s something that affects most of us to some degree or another. So I’m very excited to get into the discussion.

Jen (00:01:43)
We do all have to eat, Michael. So I think it affects all of us.

Michael (00:01:46)
We do, we do. Nutrition affects all of us and I guess most people are on social media as well.
So very kind of interesting topic Emily, welcome.

Emily (00:01:56)
Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

Michael (00:01:59)
So Emily, we’ve had some interaction before online around the episode that we did with Helen MacPherson and Sarah Dingle where they talked about their work in nutrition and mental health.
And you have also come along to a science communication workshop that I ran which is how I kind of came across your work in the area of communication and misinformation in nutrition science.
And I know you have two fantastic supervisors as well and you were saying just before we started recording that you’re nearing the end of your PhD so the light is at the end of the tunnel.

Emily (00:02:36)
It is, it’s a good place to be.

Michael (00:02:39)
Yeah, so thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule of thesis writing to come and chat to us.
And I mentioned that workshop that you came along to, that was actually in the lead up to the International Society of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity Conference.
And I believe you did very well at the conference. You were the overall winner for the best poster presentation so congratulations.

Emily (00:03:01)
Thank you. I think we can maybe put that down to the science communication workshop, can’t we?

Jen (00:03:08)
Woo-Hoo. Congratulations.

Michael (00:03:09)
I’ll take it. I’ll take it.
I don’t think I covered poster presentations in that one, did I?

Emily (00:03:14)
Well, you covered being able to concisely talk about our research. So I had three minutes to explain quite a complicated study. So I think you probably can take a little bit of credit for that.

Michael (00:03:26)
Okay, okay. I will take that then, thank you very much.
And Emily, you communicate in different realms. I know you’ve also published six papers since 2020 so clearly you’re not only just interested in SciComm, you’re pretty good at it as well.
I’d love to start off by asking you to tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you came to land on the particular topic that you have for your PhD.

Emily (00:03:53)
Sure. So my background is in nutrition science. So I did the Bachelor of Food Science and Nutrition at Deakin. And I kind of always thought that I would end up doing dietetics.
But when I was in my third year I landed a research assistant position and then I decided that research was really my passion and I probably couldn’t see myself working in a hospital or seeing clients every day.
So that was kind of my intro to research. And then I did an honours year at Deakin and continued working as a research assistant. And I had a bit of a break after my honours year and I was in chats with my supervisor Professor Sarah Mcnaughton and we had a few ideas that were kind of floating around.
And she sent an email one day and at the bottom of the email it sort of said “Oh, I’m also kind of interested in nutrition in the media and nutrition misinformation”. And I read that and I thought that’s it, that’s what I want to study because I think something that all health scientists and especially people in nutrition get really frustrated by is seeing misinformation or poorly communicated nutrition science in the media.
And so after doing my literature review we kind of realised that social media should be the real focus of my PhD because that’s where the real gaps were and it’s also such a quickly evolving kind of space. So that ended up being the focus of my PhD.
So I guess the short answer to that question is really personal frustration with seeing misinformation floating around online.

Jen (00:05:32)
And Emily, it makes me wonder. You know, obviously you’ve got this really strong background in the area so you know the science of good nutrition. Your average person hasn’t had that opportunity to do that study.
But I think most people want to eat well. Most people want to make sure their families eat well. Like what do we know about what your average person thinks when they search for information online because there’s just so many buzzwords and catchphrases.
And you know, should I eat Mediterranean? Should I eat low carb? Should I eat Paleo? Do I need to be gluten free even if I haven’t been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance? What the hell is intermittent fasting and should I do it?
And there’s so much information out there. And you know as someone with a science background my assumption would be that there’s pretty varying levels of quality. There’s going to be some really high quality information out there but also some really crap information out there.
Can I tell the difference? Can other people who’ve never studied science tell the difference? Like what do people think? Do we know what people think?

Emily (00:06:31)
Sort of. So in my last PhD study, we’re looking at people who use social media for nutrition information and their levels of nutrition confusion, which is kind of I guess how how confused they are about nutrition science.
And we’re also looking at nutrition backlash, which is a rejection of science and almost a negative reaction to authoritative voices in nutrition science.
And we’re finding that when people are exposed to, to conflicting information, they tend to get confused. And then that can also sometimes lead to nutrition backlash. So people can almost get frustrated. And that’s again linked to people being less likely to eat fruits and vegetables and less likely to want to engage in healthful behaviours.

Michael (00:07:18)
Hmm. When you mentioned nutrition backlash the image that popped up in my head was a toddler in their high seat just throwing their food.
You know, “Here’s a delicious broccoli. Would you like to eat this?”
“Nah I’m throwing it out.”
That’s really interesting. So nutrition backlash, so it can actually affect people’s behaviour in a way where they are making less healthy choices. Is that kind of what you’re seeing? Because of the confusion and the misinformation?

Emily (00:07:46)
So that’s what we’ve seen in the literature, that those kind of conflicting messages in the media can lead to those attitudes.
We’re still yet to see that in my research but the literature certainly suggests that exposure to these conflicting messages can have negative impacts on people’s attitudes and their fruit and vegetable consumption as well.

Michael (00:08:05)
Yeah and I guess they’d be maybe more likely to not engage with the high quality information that might also be out there as well right?
Because it’s a mixture of yeah, good information and not so good information I guess.

Emily (00:08:21)
Yeah. So there’s a lot of distrust in the public towards nutrition science.
And I think that is partly because nutrition is a really complex science and it’s hard to communicate effectively and concisely.

Jen (00:08:35)
That’s really fascinating to me. I wasn’t aware of that. I sort of would think, naively no doubt that because people have a strong sense of how big an effect their diet has on their physical and mental health that people would be really hungry for evidence-based information
about diet. But you’re saying that’s actually not true, that people are mistrustful of it.

Emily (00:08:56)
So people are mistrustful of what we’d consider authoritative voices in nutrition science. And people are more often going to these alternative sources of information. And we’re seeing a
lot of that online.
So people going to sources like Pete Evans because they may be frustrated with some of the communication that are coming from these more authoritative sources. Because sometimes we don’t get a clear-cut answer from the science.
So maybe it’s not that really nice neat answer somebody was looking for. But someone who’s maybe not authoritative or not as knowledgeable or experienced in the field gives people an answer that kind of fits nicely and neatly into their worldview or what they might see as an achievable behavior.

Jen (00:09:28)

Michael (00:09:43)

Jen (00:09:44)
Which all just comes back to the power of narrative right?

Emily (00:09:46)

Jen (00:09:47)
The people who share a really simple clear black and white narrative. “This is the single most important thing to do full stop.” It’s really appealing and especially as you say if it’s doable. Whether it’s accurate or not is kind of a secondary concern.
Whereas that’s one of the issues, isn’t it? That the scientist response is “Well, actually it depends. It’s complicated. We need to take a lot of things into account.” And that’s just not as appealing a narrative to people. And that’s one of the fundamental difficulties of science communication.

Emily (00:10:15)
Absolutely. And I think you’ve spoken about storytelling on the podcast as well. And I think that that really comes into play with communication on social media. We have people who the public might have a power social relationship with. So we know that people who are following certain personality on social media. They have kind of a sense of trust and a sense of connection with that personality.
And people can tell stories. You know, “I ate X, Y, Z and all of a sudden my acne cleared up and I had this benefit and that benefit”. And people can connect with one person’s story and believe one person’s story. It’s a bit more palatable than hearing about a massive study that was done on 1200 people that had these findings.

Jen (00:11:01)
And particularly if that n = 1 is a really powerful influencer. I know there’s been lots of fascinating research on the fact that people will believe influencers online even though when you look really closely…
You might have been involved with this research and it wasn’t that long ago it came out looking at a whole, you know the top hundred health and wellness influencers on Instagram and actually looking at the accuracy of the information they were sharing. And it turned out that the vast majority of it was without any evidence and completely unfounded.
It’s bad right?

Emily (00:11:33)
Yeah it’s very bad. We’re about to, we’ve just done as part of my PhD an analysis of influencer
account, the accuracy of their nutrition claims and the results aren’t very great.

Michael (00:11:44)
Hmm, that’s really interesting. Are there any kind of an extreme example of that where maybe the advice is not just confusing but could potentially be dangerous? I mean, is that the case in any of these situations?

Emily (00:11:58)
Yes. So we haven’t measured that specifically. So we haven’t measured the, I guess the potential for harm of the misinformation. But we have measured the accuracy of nutrition claims in posts.
And anecdotally what I saw was that there was some kind of banal bits of misinformation such as people not mentioning the correct number of servings of fruits and vegetables. So inaccurate but it’s not going to hurt anyone per se.
But I have also seen influencers suggesting that liver is an appropriate first food for infants which could potentially result in Vitamin A toxicity that could be really harmful for the infant.

Michael (00:12:39)
Yeah, I wonder is there any repercussions for people who are out there spreading misinformation? I don’t know if there is or not.

Emily (00:12:49)
So there’s a few consumer watchdogs that are asking the public to report influencers or other entities on social media for misinformation or kind of anything that’s not quite right.
But that kind of puts the onus on the consumer and it also means that the consumer will have to have an awareness that the information they’re presented with is inaccurate or there’s something about it that should be reported.
So it’s kind of, it’s a tricky thing. Yes, there are avenues for it but I don’t think that these avenues are adequately doing anything to kind of curb the problem of misinformation.

Jen (00:13:26)
Yeah, and the reality is that if someone has their you know, hundreds of thousands, millions of followers online, how are you going to stop them having an influence and an impact on, on what’s being discussed? You can’t remove them if people like them and want to hear from them.
Emily, I’m really interested to hear how you feel about social media because we present social media in quite a positive light to our students. We argue that social media allows you to interact with many many more people than you could face to face. So when it comes to collaborating and networking and being visible and having opportunities come your way, that social media is really powerful.
But of course we all know social media comes with risk. We talk a lot about setting boundaries and all of the rest. But when it comes to potentially dangerous misinformation being shared in really powerful places on social media, it’s really very worrying.
How, how do you feel about it? Do you hate social media?

Emily (00:14:29)
I hate what social media is doing to my PhD productivity.
I think…

Jen (00:14:35)
Boundaries, Emily. It’s all about boundaries.

Emily (00:14:38)
I think there’s a lot of ethical conundrums when it comes to social media. But I think the reality is it’s not going anywhere.
Yeah, I have complicated feelings about it. I think it can be a really powerful tool and I think if utilised correctly it can be a really powerful health promotion tool. It’s problematic but it doesn’t have to be.
I think we could, I think if the social media giants really wanted to then we could, we could use social media to do a lot of good and to put out high quality information.

Michael (00:15:11)
Hmm. Yeah and I know that’s a big challenge that a lot of the platforms are grappling with, misinformation and fact-checking.
But is there any scope for any of these companies to do fact-checking when it comes to nutrition science given the fact that it’s such an inherently complex topic and it requires background knowledge on nutrition?

Emily (00:15:31)
Yeah, I think maybe not quite yet. But there would be potential for AI to flag information that might be problematic.
But I think there might be some intermediate kind of steps that social media platforms could take. So for example the blue tick to verify someone’s identity. If social media platforms can verify that Kim Kardashian is indeed Kim Kardashian then I think social media companies should also be able to verify somebody’s qualifications.
So maybe there’s a green tick for someone who actually has a tertiary education in the information that they’re talking about.

Michael (00:16:08)
Well, you heard it here first. When we start seeing the green ticks appearing.

Jen (00:16:09)
That’s right.

Michael (00:16:10)
You heard it here first. That’s a great idea.

Emily (00:16:14)
Mark Zuckerberg, if you’re listening, give me a call please.

Jen (00:16:17)
I mean, you’re absolutely right Emily. It shouldn’t be that hard. There should be a way to support people who aren’t experts.
‘Cause the reality is it is impossible to be an expert in very many things at all, let alone all the things that you might care about.
Help me understand whose voices should I listen to here and who is making up stuff or saying things that are convenient or saying things that they are being paid to say.

Emily (00:16:43)
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s really hard as well in nutrition because there’s dietitians and there’s nutritionists. And people who’ve done a four-year tertiary education and have three years of experience in the field of nutrition can become a registered nutritionist in Australia with the regulatory body Nutrition Society of Australia. But then there are other people who might have done a three-week course online and then call themselves a nutritionist.
So it can be really challenging when someone from the public doesn’t necessarily know about the regulatory process, to look online and see Oh well, this person says that they’re a nutritionist. Surely they know what they’re talking about.

Jen (00:17:23)
So Emily, if someone’s listening to you and thinking Okay, so I’d rather listen to you Emily than your neighbour because you have many years of experience here and nutrition is something I care about. I don’t think I always make the best choices but maybe I just don’t have the best information.
Like what’s your advice? Where should people look if they want to find good quality nutrition information? Where should somebody go?

Emily (00:17:47)
The Australian guide to healthy eating outlines in a user-friendly way what most people should be consuming on a regular basis. So that’s always a really good starting point.
But I think as well anyone who says on social media that they are a dietitian and that they’re an accredited practising dietitian. That’s a very regulated title so that’s definitely someone who has tertiary education, they are doing professional development regularly to make sure that their knowledge is up to date. So I would definitely be looking for people who are saying that they are an accredited practising dietitian.
And also if you do have concerns about what you’re eating, going and chatting to a health professional because information that you’re getting online isn’t personalised. Even a dietitian if they’re doing a post, it might be more general in nature.
So if you do have particular concerns about your diet then I would encourage you to go and see a registered nutritionist or a dietitian or even chat to your GP as a starting point. Because as we kind of mentioned, nutrition is complicated. There’s individual factors that might make my requirements different to somebody else’s. And you don’t get that kind of personalised advice through social media.

Michael (00:19:07)
Hmm. Something I’m kind of wondering is thinking about you know, a person who’s sitting there, they’re on social media. They’re getting exposed to a lot of this information.
And something you mentioned earlier about it can kind of plant a seed of mistrust in nutrition science. I wonder does that extend to science in general do you think?

Emily (00:19:28)
Yes, I do think so. And I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a really good example about some of the mistrust. And I think the mistrust can occur in these kind of isolated online communities where people might be involved in an echo chamber. And for whatever reason they’ve kind of developed a mistrust in science in general.
And I think it’s that science isn’t simple. It’s a yes but XYZ, or not necessarily, the answers aren’t always clear-cut when they’re true. So I think that there is general mistrust towards science.
And I think that social media, because of the nature of it, people are scrolling quickly. It’s this attention economy where people can’t, they don’t provide their attention for long periods of time for things on social media. And that doesn’t lend itself to nuanced conversations about science and information that has all of the context provided.

Michael (00:20:27)
Yeah, it’s really interesting. So presumably, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk listen to this podcast, right?

Jen (00:20:34)
Of course.

Michael (00:20:35)
So what would you say to them, Emily? You know, you’ve got a sophisticated perspective on this.

Michael (00:20:40)
If they were to hire you, to come on board and try and address some of these issues and give you the power to address some of these issues, what would be some of the changes you’d like to make?

Emily (00:20:52)
I think having some sort of green tick or some sort of way to verify somebody’s qualifications and expertise in a particular area is really important.
And I think there’s some big conversations to have around censorship ’cause I know it’s really dangerous territory when we start to say “Oh, we’ll take this person down from a platform or we won’t let you say this on a platform”.
But I think even some warning labels if someone’s giving out health information but they don’t have a relevant qualification, maybe sort of like a warning label on the post or something like that. Kind of how we saw during the pandemic, if someone posted about COVID-19 then there was a little warning banner underneath.
But I think it is a really complicated problem. And I don’t think the solutions are necessarily going to be simple. And I think it will take a range of different approaches and perhaps some trial and error.

Jen (00:21:46)
Yeah, because presumably confirmation bias is going to play a huge role here. Because even if somebody doesn’t have the green tick or even if there is a little warning, if somebody who I think is important or some sort of celebrity says something that backs up what I already think, “It’s essential I drink my X or eat my Y, of course I’m still going to believe it”.
So I think I think you’re right when you say it’s complicated. But the work you’re doing to raise awareness I think is so important. I’m really, I’m just so glad to know that you’re doing this.
And it just makes me think Emily, to kind of sum up. If you take a step back from the nuances of your own research, what you’re finding, do you think that has messages for us in how we can improve science communication and public engagement in general?

Emily (00:22:34)
Yeah, I think so. I think that there are lessons to be learned from influencers. They know how to create content that is popular. So perhaps having more of our personalities as scientists involved in our conversations with the public. Having a more kind of personal brand when we’re communicating, having consistency in our posts.
So you know, we have this idea of like the curated feed of an influencer where they all kind of follow the same colour scheme or they might post about a particular topic. I think there are ways that we can try and engage with the public by using some of these influencer tactics.
I mean, the tactics that aren’t problematic, to get people interested in our content and to get people interested in the things that we have to say. So we’ve got their attention, OK, and now we can communicate more effectively.

Jen (00:23:24)
Good advice.

Michael (00:23:25)
Very, very good advice. You mentioned influencers. They know how to create popular content. I wouldn’t say we’re influencers, Jen. But we like to think we can create popular content.
Popular part of our podcasts are the rapid fire questions that we have at the end. We have now come to the time in the podcast where we’re going to switch gears a little bit, Emily.

Emily (00:23:48)

Michael (00:23:56)
Just got a few lighthearted questions for you to round out our chat.
So the first one I’d love to ask is — If you had to pick kind of an alternative career path to the one you are currently on, what would it be?

Emily (00:24:10)
Psychologist, I think.

Michael (00:24:11)
Ooh, interesting. And kind of very relevant, I suppose.
You probably want to become a psychologist more now after some of your PhD findings.

Emily (00:24:21)
Well, it was… I always wanted to be a psychologist up until basically the end of Year 12, and it was time to decide on what I wanted to study, and then I had a bit of a shift and ended up going down the path of nutrition, much to the surprise of everybody I knew.

Jen (00:24:38)
Well, I can definitely relate. I think in another life, I probably would have been a psychologist too, so that makes sense to me.
Emily, question 2, what has been your proudest moment in your career to date?

Emily (00:24:51)
My proudest moment was probably a few months ago. After I had a couple of my papers from my PhD published and I started to cite them in my next PhD paper.
And I could start to see my PhD finally coming together. That was… I was just sitting at home by myself on the couch and I have had that moment described to me by a lot of people who have finished their PhDs that there will be a moment where it starts to come together.
And I was sitting there and I was like this is it, this is the moment it’s all coming together. So that was a really proud moment for me.

Jen (00:25:27)
Yeah. Congratulations. I remember it.

Michael (00:25:28)
Oh. It’s wonderful. I know, I remember too. You’re just, you’re kind of lost in the mire for I don’t know how long, and then you eventually stumble out and you’re like, Oh, wait a minute, I think I’m actually going to be able to finish this.

Emily (00:25:44)
Yeah. It’s a good feeling.
And if you’re a PhD student and you’re listening and you haven’t got there yet, it will happen.

Michael (00:25:49)
Yes, that is good advice. Bit of a curveball question here, Emily next.
If you could go back in time to witness any science event or any discovery, what would it be?

Emily (00:26:01)
Oh I think I would like to be there when the first time bread was invented because food, food is chemistry and I think that would be a pretty cool thing to witness because it’s, the invention of bread has really shaped quite a lot historically. So that would be pretty cool to witness.

Jen (00:26:22)
That’s such a cool answer. I wanna be there too. And I wanna taste it.

Emily (00:26:26)
Yeah, that too.

Michael (00:26:27)
Yeah. I often think about yeah, the first time someone tried this type of food…

Jen (00:26:33)
Ice cream.

Michael (00:26:34)
Where did that come from?
Ice cream. Yeah. Imagine being the person who invented ice cream.

Emily (00:26:39)
That person deserves a Nobel Prize.

Jen (00:26:39)
That’s my new answer next. Yeah. Next time you ask me this question Michael, that’s going to be my answer. I want to be the first person to taste ice cream.
Alright, well, we’ve kind of verged into the next question anyway. At least I have. Emily, is there a topic in science that you would really love to know quite a lot about, you think is really fascinating, but you’ve just never had any time or opportunity to delve into, to something you really know nothing about.

Emily (00:27:04)
I think some of the, we don’t really know much about the ocean. And I’d really love to know a lot more about some of the weird and wonderful creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean.

Jen (00:27:14)
That’s a great answer.

Emily (00:27:15)
And also of the same vein, I’d love to know more about aliens.
What, what’s out there? I’d really like to know.

Michael (00:27:23)
Yeah, wouldn’t we all.

Jen (00:27:25)
Yeah, that’s right. Great answers.

Michael (00:27:28)
It is. Yeah, very very interesting. Sometimes I think about that when I’m going swimming. You know, what could be underneath me? Is there a giant squid or what was that that just tickled my foot? Now I’m getting out.

Emily (00:27:41)
I’ve just come back from a trip to Europe and I went for a swim in Croatia and stepped on a sea urchin.

Michael (00:27:49)

Emily (00:27:50)
So I still currently have bits of sea urchin in my foot. So I am part human, part sea urchin now.

Jen (00:27:57)
Oh, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

Emily (00:28:00)
It wasn’t great.

Michael (00:28:02)
No, that does not sound like fun at all.
So Emily, last question that I would like to ask is — for our listeners out there who are doing the good work, trying to navigate social media, looking for good information on nutrition, what would be your top tip for successfully navigating nutrition on social media?

Emily (00:28:25)
If it sounds too good to be true. It probably is.

Jen (00:28:29)
Oh, what an awesome tip. I love it.

Michael (00:28:32)
Very good. Very punchy. I like it.

Jen (00:28:34)
So next time someone tells me that all I need to do to live my healthiest, longest, slimmest, strongest life is eat a whole lot of eggs, I shouldn’t believe them.

Emily (00:28:44)
Probably not.

Emily (00:28:46)
I’ll take that with me. What about cake?

Michael (00:28:49)

Jen (00:28:50)
Michael and I like eating cake.
He said. “It it okay that we still eat some cake?”

Emily (00:28:54)

Jen (00:28:54)
No one’s telling us it will solve our problems.

Emily (00:28:58)
It might solve some of your problems, maybe not your health problems. But there is plenty of room in the diet. Well, maybe not plenty of room. There is some room in the diet for a few serves of discretionary items here and there, so you definitely don’t need to give up cake.

Michael (00:29:12)
That’s good.

Jen (00:29:13)
Excellent. Thank goodness. We like you Emily, come back again.

Michael (00:29:18)
You’re really speaking to my confirmation buyer Emily.
Well Emily, it’s been fantastic having you on. Thank you so much for taking time out of thesis writing with a bit of spiky sea urchin in your foot.
Got a lot of things occupying your mind at the moment, so we really appreciate taking the time to chat to us today.

Emily (00:29:39)
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Jen (00:29:41)
Yeah. Thanks Emily. That was wonderful.
And all the best for your submission. We can’t wait to hear that your thesis is out of your life.

Emily (00:29:47)
Thank you.

Michael and Jen (00:30:07)
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