Twitter analysis captures nutrition chatter early in pandemic
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, people were desperate for information about how to protect themselves from the rapidly spreading virus. Many looked for advice on social media, where opinions on preventing infection or minimizing its risks quickly proliferated.
A new study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research from authors at UIC and Texas Woman’s University Institute for Health Sciences used data from Twitter to assess how non-expert users discussed one area of heavy interest during COVID-19: nutrition. By analyzing over 70,000 tweets posted between January and September 2020, the authors characterized the most common topics of conversation, identifying supplements, fluids and fruits as especially prominent.
The study was led by Kavitha Shankar, a UIC alumnus who is now pursuing a PhD in nutrition at Texas Woman’s University, and Ranganathan Chandrasekaran, professor of information and decision sciences at UIC Business. In a previous study, Chandrasekaran used Twitter data to study public perception of vaccination during the pandemic, but this project looked exclusively at conversations before the vaccine was available.
“Social media became a very fertile medium for information exchange and interaction,” Chandrasekaran said. “Many people started paying more attention to physical fitness and building immunity so that they could fight the virus. We wanted to understand what the public was saying about this topic and how everybody was coping with this new pandemic.”
To focus on public opinion, the team filtered out tweets from official agencies, health and science professionals and medical organizations such as hospitals. They also removed advertising messages and tweets that appeared to come from bots or automated systems. Then they used text mining approaches to sort the remaining tweets into categories by topic and sentiment.
Many of the top categories reflected a focus on fresh and organic foods, such as fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs. Negative sentiment was most seen around what the authors labeled “avoidable foods” — unhealthy options such as alcohol, fast food and soda. But the most popular category, comprising more than a third of the analyzed tweets, was supplements: vitamins, antioxidants and other man-made products.
“I think people were looking for a quick fix to boost immunity,” Chandrasekaran said.
For the analysis, the authors did not judge whether the nutritional claims made by the tweets were backed by scientific evidence. But Shankar said certain observations, such as the prominence of discussion around consuming fluids, were in line with medical recommendations.
“From my observation, people pay very little attention to how much fluids, especially water, they drink during a normal day,” Shankar said. “From this study, it was very refreshing to know that at least 25% of the population understood the importance of hydration. I was not expecting to see that in our results.”
The study’s results can be used by health professionals to better understand public opinion on the role of nutrition in preventing infectious disease, Shankar said. That could help inform discussions in the clinic and steer people toward dietary guidance supported by science.
Additional co-authors included Pruthvinath Jeripity Venkata of UIC and Derek Miketinas of Texas Woman’s University Institute for Health Sciences.