Why social media needs less ‘science-ploitation’ and more hard facts

Collagen has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, thanks in large part to Instagram. But research doesn’t back up its health benefits — and now some experts say it’s time for scientists to fight back
By Alexandra Rendely - Published on April 30, 2019
Can filled with white powder on its side, next to measuring cup filled with same white powder.
Used medically for cosmetic surgeries and wound-healing treatments, collagen has seen a spike in sales over the last year through dietary supplements. (iStock/helovi)

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Instagram influencer and nutritionist Joy McCarthy gushes that her matcha collagen latte is “beautifying and hydrating because it’s got collagen.”

In an Instagram post late last year, the Toronto-based entrepreneur excitedly tells her 85,000-plus followers that a scoop of collagen in your morning coffee can “boost hyaluronic acid, improve cardiovascular performance, reduce the signs of aging, and improve joint health and bone mineral density.” Quite a feat for a supplement made of discarded pig, cow, or fish parts that has no apparent therapeutic value.

In less than a second, a search for #collagen on Instagram produces more than 5.4 million posts, primarily related to beauty products and to healthy treats baked with the supplement. Thanks in large part to the platform, the naturally occurring protein, which got its start as a popular lip filler, has suddenly become a $4 billion global problem for science — and some experts are calling on researchers and on the government to help stem the flow of misinformation. 

Used medically for cosmetic surgeries and wound-healing treatments, collagen has seen a spike in sales over the last year through dietary supplements, according to Grandview Research. Companies such as Genuine Heath claim that it can cure bodily ailments while simultaneously making you look younger. Its Instagram account boasts that the company “dove into the science on collagen and were blown away by what we learned” and cites improved cardiovascular function as a reason why “everyone needs a little more collagen in their life.” 

But studies that have investigated the potential benefits of collagen don’t back up the exciting headlines. The conclusion of the heart-health study Genuine Health cites, for example, states that “the sample size was small and made inferences … this study was not powered to differentiate pork collagen peptide ingestion in terms of CVD [cerebrovascular disease] risk reduction.” 

“The physiology cannot possibly support the claims of a protein that has a quality rating of zero,” says Stuart Phillips, director of McMaster University’s Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Health Research, referring to the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score, or PDCAAS, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has used since 1993 to assess protein quality.

When queried about the discrepancy between the company’s literature and the research it referenced, a spokesperson told TVO.org via email that “Genuine Health is not making claims that collagen improves cardiovascular health.”  

McCarthy, who works as a holistic nutritionist, told TVO.org that she believes collagen “is such a big trend because there is good research on it.” She believes in “fish collagen’s ability to increase energy and wellbeing” because “there is science behind it.” (The small study she quoted was funded and conducted by a research lab testing a new daily oral supplement that contains 8 per cent collagen and 87 per cent water.)

Many Toronto-area health and wellness influencers, including McCarthy, are paid by Genuine Health to boost sales on social-media platforms, adding to the chorus of dubious claims from high-profile celebrities: Taylor Swift, for example, says that L-theanine helps with her stress and anxiety (recent science does not support this claim); Kim Kardashian gets her abs from detox tea (experts say it does more harm than good). It’s difficult for the public to “find the signal within the noise,” says Phillips.

Tim Caulfield, a professor of health law at the University of Alberta, calls the misuse of science-like language “science-ploitation” — and he’s urging genuine scientists to combat it by promoting real science on social media.

Caulfield, who hosts a Netflix show, A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, in which he debunks pseudoscience, says that scientists, researchers, and health-care professionals need to start using equally creative and catchy communication strategies to present legitimate information in interesting ways. Increasingly, he says, pseudo-scientific language is being used to give posts “the veneer of legitimacy,” so he’s encouraging scientists and experts to speak up, be engaged on social media, and help consumers tease out what is real and what is not.

Because there is no licensing body for nutritionists in Ontario, there are no consequences for misinterpreting study results — so influencers are free to post questionable claims about products and get paid for doing so.

Health Canada told TVO.org via email that “the Department is committed to ensuring that information in a health product advertisement is not false, misleading or deceptive, and will take action when advertisements are not compliant with Canadian advertising legislation and regulations.” It also provided a link to a summary of health-product advertising complaints that it publishes “as part of its commitment to openness and transparency.”  

Caulfield is frustrated that “people can make misrepresentation with no blowback”; he’d like to see Health Canada and other professional organizations issue statements about products such as collagen. In this age of misinformation, he argues, there needs to be a space where the public and health practitioners can go to point to the evidence and say, “This is the reality of the science.” 

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