An online survey by the ICMR’s National Institute of Nutrition has reported high consumption of vitamin C-rich fruits as well as vitamin C and zinc supplements by adult Indians to boost immunity during the second wave of COVID-19 upon their exposure to (mis)information on social media.
Traditional Indian spices such as ginger and garlic were used by 62.9 per cent and 50.9 per cent of the respondents respectively.
Most of the total 572 respondents reported to have relied on social media for gathering COVID-19 associated tips for boosting immunity. However, those with a history of coronavirus infection reported to rely more on doctors and health professionals for information, the study found.
The soon-to-be-published study — “Impact of COVID-19 Infodemic on the food and nutrition-related perception, practices and reliability on the source of information among Indian internet users” — highlights the need for media and health literacy to advocate the use of health information cautiously, said Dr. Hemalatha R, Director of National Institute of Nutrition.
“The uncontrolled spread of (mis)information, news and propaganda related to COVID-19 created an ‘infodemic’ leading to panic and unscientific practices among the people. With the largest number of internet users in the world, India has witnessed a steep rise in the number of people seeking information on social media related to COVID-19, which reached a staggering 22.3 million by March, 2020,” said Dr SubbaRao M Gavaravarapu, senior scientist and the lead investigator of the study.
“This study aimed to evaluate the trend of COVID-19 associated food and nutrition news search by Indian internet users between January 27, 2020 to June 30, 2021 (time period between the first detected COVID-19 case and the end of the second wave in India) and its impact on their perceptions and practices,” SubbaRao said.
The association between the change in relative search volume (RSV) on Google Trends of 34 popularly searched keywords classified by the researchers under five different categories — ‘Immunity’, ‘Eating behaviour’, ‘Food safety’, ‘Food scares and concerns’ and ‘Covid scare’ — showed a steep rise in search for immunity boosters, vitamin supplement brands, “ayush kadha” (ayurvedic decoction) during the first wave in April- August 2020.
With a brief period of decline in the search trend, it again increased correspondingly with the growing number of positive cases during the second wave in India.
The concept of ‘immunity-boosting foods’ as a preventive strategy to fight COVID-19 infection gained a lot of traction during the pandemic.
“Out of the commonly searched immunity boosting agents, most respondents (71.9 per cent) reported to have increased their consumption of vitamin C-rich foods (citrus fruits, guava, amla, etc.) as immunity boosters during the study period. A large proportion of respondents also reported consumption of nutraceuticals supplements such as vitamin C supplements (68.2 per cent), zinc supplements (61.4 per cent) to boost immunity.
“Traditional Indian spices like ginger and garlic were used by 62.9 per cent and 50.9 per cent respondents respectively. Although ‘kadha/kashayam’ (decoction of medicinal herbs) and ‘chawanprash’ (an ayurvedic health mixture made of various herbs and spices) were quite hyped, fewer participants reported to have consumed them (28.8 per cent and 57.5 per cent respectively),” SubbaRao stated.
Dependence on homeopathy medicines for immunity boosting against COVID-19 was found to be the least at 28.1 per cent.
The study was conducted through a closed-ended questionnaire which was administered online to obtain cross-sectional information from active internet users in India regarding their perceptions, practices and the reliability of the commonly propagated food related information with respect to COVID-19.
The participation of potential respondents was solicited through calls for participation issued via media releases, social media posts on the institute’s website and instant messaging apps.
The survey form was made available on the official website and the links were shared on social media pages of ICMR-NIN between June 1 and July 31 last year.
Participants were asked to determine the changes incurred in their food safety practices, eating patterns during the COVID-19 period and about their knowledge, perception and perceived reliability on different sources of information: newspaper, television, social media, frontline health workers, health organisations, internet search or peer group.