When it comes to the claims made about products in medicine, nutrition, economics and other areas, how do we establish what is true and what's not true? What can we trust and what can we not trust?
This is the subject tackled recently by Anel Schoonees, a researcher with the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care (CEBHC), who was part of an international group of researchers to publish a “Comment" article in the journal Nature.
In the article, entitled Key Concepts for Making Informed Choices, the alliance of researchers from a range of fields lays out a framework for making decisions based on thinking critically about claims and comparisons.
The Informed Health Choices Key Concepts was developed between 2012 and 2017, led by the Centre for Informed Health Choices at the Institute of Public Health in Norway.
Schoonees explained that “this inspired the development of Key Concepts for Informed Choices for critical thinking about interventions across fields, led by Dr Andrew Oxman from Norway. My colleague Dr Celeste Naude, a senior researcher at CEBHC, and I have been part of this group. Our role is specifically to contextualise the 'Key Concepts' for the field of nutrition.
She continued: “The Comment article in Nature contains the Key Concepts for Informed Choices, which serve as a framework to assist people across fields to help others think critically about claims and make informed decisions in their everyday lives. Anyone from any field can take the Key Concepts, adjust where needed and develop resources for their field and their intended target audience - primary school children, adolescents, patients, journalists, healthcare students, etc."
Schoonees, who at Stellenbosch University initially studied a BSc in Food Science, went on to get her Masters in Nutrition.
Situated in the Division of Human Nutrition, under Professor Jimmy Volmink's mentorship, she worked as a research assistant, and later enrolled for an MSc in Clinical Epidemiology under Professor Taryn Young. She also qualified as dietitian at the University of Cape Town.
Schoonees started working at the CEBHC in 2011.
She said the Key Concepts for Informed Choices project is particularly significant to her because of her background in nutrition, a field in which “so much nonsense" is put out.
“It's very important that this project is taken further to look at nutrition. Celeste and I are working on this."
It has special meaning because, even as a child she was aware of false claims in some media and marketing material.
“I remember reading the nutrition and health pages of my mother's magazines. I believed everything I read until I got to high school. One day they'd say one thing and the next month it would be contradicted. This confused me."
During her MSc in Clinical Epidemiology, she did a 'Magazines Study' – a descriptive survey on the advertising of nutritional supplements in South African women's magazines.
“For a year, I bought all the issues of five popular women's magazines in the country and looked at the extent to which health claims in advertisements on nutritional supplements were made, and what was cited as evidence for those claims."
The magazines study pointed out the need for consumers to have basic knowledge of the principles of evidence-based health care and nutrition, which is now what the Key Concepts project addresses.
Schoonees is excited to be part of the project. “Not all evidence is created equal, and it is challenging to figure out which claims are more trustworthy. This project provides a good framework from which to work, and a real opportunity to empower others to make well-informed decisions."
For more information, see the website www.thatsaclaim.org. The article can be seen here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02407-9.