When the COVID-19 emerged in China, sparking a pandemic of acute respiratory syndrome in humans, the transmission was linked to food. Initial cases were traced back to a seafood market in the city of Wuhan, and gradually, concerns about the virus being passed on through non-vegetarian food, Chinese cuisine, food delivery and packaging became prevalent.
Food-related behaviour of the general population was certainly altered during the pandemic, and an online questionnaire-based study covering 600 respondents in both urban and rural areas showed that 'immunity', 'supplements' and 'vegetable cleaners' were among the top-searched terms on the internet during that period. The study, taken up by the Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) here, aimed to evaluate the trend of COVID-associated food and nutrition news search by Indian internet users between January 27, 2020, and June 30, 2021, and its impact on their perceptions and practices.
The rise in COVID cases had a direct association with the search trends. It tapered with fewer cases and spiked when the second wave hit last summer. Various immunity-boosting food items to prevent or fight COVID-19 gained favour with most respondents (71.9%) reported to have increased their consumption of Vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, guava, amla etc.
Use of supplements
In their study, NIN’s G.M. Subba Rao and his colleagues Ananya Seal, Paromita Banerjee, Thirupathi Reddy and Naresh Pitla attempted to determine the changes in food safety practices and eating patterns, and found that many people had consumed nutraceutical 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% respondents, respectively.
Although 'kadha/kashayam' (decoction of medicinal herbs) and 'chawanprash' (an ayurvedic health mixture made of various herbs and spices) were hyped up, fewer respondents reported to have consumed them (28.8% and 57.5%, respectively). Dependence on homeopathy medicines for boosting immunity against COVID-19 found least favour (28.1%).
In pre-COVID times, most respondents reported having used lukewarm water or water to clean vegetables and fruits. Measures taken to avoid spread of COVID-19 through food items changed with the use of special cleaners to wash vegetables and fruits and "remove dust and germs", even as "change in quality, colour and shelf-life of fruits and vegetables" after using cleaners was noted.
About 60% of respondents reported to have reduced the frequency of ordering cooked meals via food aggregator apps but the preference to buy vegetables, fruits and groceries from online delivery services increased significantly during this time, especially among non-vegetarians. While there were few concerns about consuming or ordering Chinese cuisine, a majority (83%) showed no concern about safety of food in restaurants or eateries in the post-lockdown period.
Participants also reported reduction in frequency of ordering cooked foods through online delivery platforms. There were concerns about the virus spreading through meat, consumption of poultry, eggs, seafood, imported frozen foods and cold substances like ice cream. Exposure to news items regarding apparent risks led to a significant change in dietary preferences of most participants from non-vegetarian to vegetarian, as noted in the study.
Health workers and websites of health organisations ranked high in reliability. Of the 61.8% respondents with a history of COVID- 19 infection and under home isolation, many relied on dietary advice provided by doctors and health professionals more than the general information provided by peers, media, and web.
Researchers said the study highlights the need for promoting nutrition literacy and health literacy among people to advocate use of information cautiously and verifying the authenticity of health information before putting it to practice or sharing it with others. It should be a part of the country's preparedness for facing the challenge of future 'infodemic in pandemic', they added. The study has been published in 'Plos One' journal on April 21, 2022 (http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266705).
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