The Covid pandemic did not just change our perception of what human immunity means but also what we eat to stay healthy. This led to an ‘infodemic’ amid the pandemic, according to a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad.
The online survey conducted on adult Indian internet users reported a high (71.9%) consumption of Vitamin C-rich fruits, as well as Vitamin C (68.2%) and Zinc (61.4%), supplements to boost immunity. Traditional Indian spices like ginger and garlic were used by 62.9% and 50.9% of respondents respectively. Most respondents reported relying on social media for gathering tips for boosting immunity in the wake of Covid-19 hitting India. However, those with a history of Covid-19 infection reported relying more on doctors and health professionals for information.
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INTERNET — THE GO-TO PLACE FOR INFO ON COVID
The study found that India saw a steep rise in the number of people seeking information related to Covid-19 on social media, which reached a staggering 22.3 million by March 2020. The study aimed to evaluate the trend of Covid-associated food and nutrition news searches by Indian internet users between January 27, 2020, to June 30, 2021, (the 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.
The association between the change in the search patterns using keywords classified by researchers under five categories — immunity, eating behavior, food safety, food scares and concerns, and Covid scare — showed a steep rise as people looked for answers on immunity boosters, vitamin supplement brands, ayush kadha (an ayurvedic decoction) during the first wave (April-August 2020). After a brief decline in the search trends, it hiked proportionately with the growing number of positive cases during the second wave in India.
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Though the search interest in ayurvedic kadha (a decoction of spices and herbs) was found to be very high, the usage was markedly low. The search trend of the keyword ayush kadha on Google was found to appear for the first time in April 2020. This is probably because of interest evoked by the advocacy about the same by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his national address during a TV appearance on April 14, 2020, wherein he shared tips to build immunity against Covid-19 as recommended by the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy). However, its low usage could be because of its bitter taste.
SEARCH BEHAVIOR ASSOCIATED WITH FOOD & NUTRITION NEWS
The initial Google searches about food associated with Covid-19 news commonly featured: “Can I take vitamin supplements to prevent coronavirus?”, “vitamins to prevent corona”, “can I get coronavirus from eating frozen foods and ice cream?”,” herbal medicine to treat corona”.
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A positive correlation was observed between the number of Covid cases and search terms like “vitamin D”, “Limcee”, “grocery delivery”, “vegetable sanitizers”, “alcohol” etc. At the same time, search terms like “street food”, “junk food”, “food delivery”, etc were negatively correlated to the number of cases.
‘PERCEPTION OVER IMMUNITY BOOSTERS’
The concept of “immunity-boosting food” 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%) reported having 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%), and Zinc supplements (61.4%) to boost immunity. Traditional Indian spices like ginger and garlic were used by 62.9% and 50.9% of respondents respectively.
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Although ‘kadha/kashayam‘ (decoction of medicinal herbs) and ‘chyawanprash‘ (an Ayurvedic health mixture made of various herbs and spices) were quite hyped by fewer participants reported to have consumed them (28.8%and 57.5% respectively). Dependence on homoeopathy medicines for boosting immunity against Covid-19 was found to be the least (28.1%).
COVID FOOD SCARE, CONCERNS, FOOD-SAFETY PRACTICES
In the pre-Covid times, most respondents reported having used “lukewarm water” or “water” to clean vegetables and fruits. However, the safety measures o avoid the spread of Covid-19 through food changed during the Covid period. The use of special cleaners to wash vegetables and fruits to “remove dust and germs” was reported to be relatively higher during the Covid times than the pre-Covid times. However, some respondents noted a change in the quality, color, and shelf-life of fruits and vegetables after using vegetable cleaners.
While approximately 60% of the respondents reported having reduced the frequency of ordering cooked foods via online platforms, the preference to buy vegetables, fruits, and groceries from online delivery services increased significantly (p=0.000) during this time. Out of the 264 non-vegetarian participants, 131 reported that they changed their usual dietary preferences.
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Overall, 175 participants reported having concerns about consuming or ordering Chinese cuisine. However, a majority (83%) showed no concerns about the safety of foods in restaurants or eateries during the post lockdown period. The food safety practices picked up during the Covid period.
FOOD-SAFETY PRACTICES PICKED UP OR ESCALATED DURING THE COVID PERIOD
The participants ranked social media the highest on reliability that determined their perception and practice of Covid-19 appropriate food behavior, such as boosting immunity through natural food sources, alternative medicines and home remedies.
However, out of the 61.8% of respondents who had a history of Covid-19 infections and were under home isolation reported that they relieved on the dietary advice provided by doctors and health professionals more than the general information provided by peers, media, and web during their active infection phase.
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For information related to supplements, respondents relied on the frontline workers, whereas, for information related to immunity-building products social media was the most sought-after source of information.
This study investigated the food and nutrition-related web search behavior of adult Indian internet users during the different phases of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. This study clearly demonstrates that there was a heightened internet search for terms like “immunity”, “supplements”, “vegetable cleaners” etc during the period.
The rise in the Covid-19 cases had a direct association with the search trends. Despite the hype on different media platforms about immunity-boosting foods, there has been limited scientific evidence about the efficacy of immunity boosters and an exaggerated immune response as a preventive measure against Covid.