WASHINGTON — Since its establishment in 1985, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has strived to ensure discourse about food and nutrition is grounded in science. At a time of change for the organization and at a moment of rising alarm about the threat of artificial intelligence (AI)-generated misinformation, the challenges of “effectively communicating science-based information about sustainable food systems, with a focus on food safety and nutrition,” as the nonprofit funded by the food industry describes its work, is becoming ever more difficult.
A changing of the guard took place at IFIC in May when Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak was named chief executive officer, succeeding Joseph Clayton, who stepped down from the group after a tenure of 6 ½ years. Mr. Clayton was credited for building IFIC’s communications and education programs, and still more work in these areas will be needed. Ms. Kapsak joins IFIC from the Produce for Better Health Foundation where she was president and CEO for the past five years, leading the organization’s efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.
At IFIC, Ms. Kapsak is responsible for ensuring what’s written and said about all foods, not just haloed foods like fruits and vegetables, is accurate. In an environment in which the healthfulness of foods is too often presented in black-or-white terms, IFIC has been helpful in presenting consumers and health professionals with a reasoned, nuanced understanding of the role of products such as processed foods and added sugars in a balanced and healthy diet.
Meanwhile, concerns about misinformation broadly have been on the rise because of the release this year of ChatGPT, an AI-chatbot that generates information with natural language tailored to the user’s preferences. Rapid advances in the technology have precipitated the direst of all concerns — that AI poses an existential threat to humanity. Nearer term, concerns have been voiced that AI will generate political misinformation like never before.
“When strapped to powerful social media algorithms, this fake and digitally created content can spread far and fast and target highly specific audiences, potentially taking campaign dirty tricks to a new low,” according to analysis published by the Public Broadcasting System.
Politics are hardly the only field vulnerable to the effects of widely disseminated misinformation. Changes in food consumption trends are sometimes traced to consumer beliefs that are not grounded in science. Recent data from IFIC suggest consumer confusion leaves the public ripe for being misled about what foods are healthy and which aren’t, which ingredients pose risks, and which do not.
IFIC’s 2022 Food and Health Survey found that 71% of Americans agree that because nutrition information seems to keep changing, it is hard to know what to believe. Similarly, 80% of respondents in the 2018 Food and Health Survey said they come across conflicting information about food and nutrition, with 59% confirming that conflicting information makes them doubt their choices.
Into this environment in which the public’s understanding of the facts around healthy eating is anything but solidly established, ChatGPT concedes that if the training data it uses “contains biases or misinformation, there is a possibility that the model may generate or reinforce such content when prompted with certain topics.”
It continues, “It is crucial for users to critically evaluate the information they consume, fact-check from reliable sources, and be aware that AI models, while helpful, may not always provide completely accurate or unbiased information.” In the case of food, ChatGPT identifies four principal sources of misinformation — fad diets, non-expert influencers, misinterpretation/misrepresentation of scientific studies and marketing by food companies.
Because IFIC is funded by the food industry, the organization’s information will never be accepted without question. Still, if IFIC holds true to its mission and works to broaden its membership to more comprehensively represent the full range of companies dedicated to feeding the public, its voice may emerge as a still more powerful resource in the fight against the misinformation chaos that is said to be lurking just around the corner.