There are all sorts of medical and diagnostic tests you can take at home — from skin cancer apps to eye exams — but in recent years food allergy and sensitivity tests have become offered. But do those home food allergt tests really work?
It’s no surprise this is being offered. Food, food quality, and food allergies have been at the top of society’s concerns. It goes in waves: sometimes gluten is the devil, sometimes it’s sugar, and lactose always gets blamed for a panoply of symptoms.
Unpleasant digestive problems, like bloating, constipation, diarrhea and excessive gas hinder social lives. These symptoms are real, distressing, and leave many people desperate for a solution.
But ordering a home food sensitivity kit, like EverlyWell, is most likely not going to solve the problem.
Not All Allergy Tests Are Created Equal
Because at-home tests usually require either a blood test or a strand of hair, they seem very official. However, they don’t measure up compared to going to an allergist. In fact, using these at-home tests can take you down a slippery slope into escalating costs and disordered eating.
Dr. Stuart Min, an MD specializing in allergies in Southern California, explains to Parentology the difference between an allergy and other food-related problems.
“I typically categorize food reactions into one of three baskets: food allergy, food intolerance, and food sensitivities,” Min says. “Food allergies are triggered consistently and quickly with each food. This is mediated by an antibody called IgE in the body.”
Min explains the significance of IgE. “If your body is allergic to a food, it will produce IgE specific to that food. After exposure to that particular food, the IgE will initiate a cascade that ultimately results in the typical allergic symptoms of hives, throat closing, wheezing, and possibly drop of blood pressure or vomiting/diarrhea. The symptoms will occur fairly quickly after exposure to the food. When we do a lab test for food allergies, we’re checking the IgE.”
Notice: the IgE is what indicates an allergy. A food intolerance, though, is different. And much more elusive.
“Food intolerances result when your body doesn’t have the ability to break down specific items,” Min says. “Lactose intolerance is a classic example of food intolerance. If you have a lactose intolerance, your body lacks lactase which serves to break down lactose into glucose and galactose. Your body is unable to absorb lactose as it moves into the large intestines where bacteria breaks it down, which leads to gas production and the subsequent symptoms of flatulence, bloating, discomfort, and embarrassed, or defiant, looks.”
While the antibody IgE is linked conclusively to food allergies, with often present violent reactions, tests like EverlyWell measure another antibody: IgG. The problem? IgG merely means you’ve had exposure to a food, not a reaction. If you’ve eaten wheat, you might have an elevated IgG, but it might just mean you had a sandwich at lunch.
“There isn’t a lot of understanding of how food sensitivities work or what causes them,” Min elaborates. “I’ve seen enough patients that swear specific foods will make them feel a certain way that I believe there’s probably something going on, but to this date, there have been no studies showing that IgG is indicative of anything other than exposure to the foods.”
Min continues, “To be fair to a company like Everlywell, they do hedge in their claims and say IgG may be indicative of a food sensitivity. However, I doubt patients reading the site, or listening to celebrity endorsements, notice that hedge.”
Consequences Connected to Home Allergy Tests
While one of these tests might be able to determine what you ate in the last 24 hours, it can’t determine what’s causing intestinal distress or horrid rashes. It will, though, offer a laundry list of possible culprit foods to avoid. In fact, if you take more than one home test, you may wind up with conflicting results.
The results are truly not definitive, but they might make you prune your diet down to nothing. Vice’s Shayla Love had that experience first hand; after getting her results, she became obsessive about her diet.
“This is the true danger of these tests: not just that they could be incorrect, or have kept me from PB&Js for a whole year,” Love wrote, “but that they can be a sand trap for anyone with disordered thoughts and fears around eating.”
Dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman deals with this dynamic often in her practice. In an article for Self magazine, she wrote about the common pitfalls of these tests.
“They tell me that initially they panicked about how they could possibly eliminate all of these foods and continue on with normal work and social commitments,” Freuman wrote. “But they were committed to giving it a try, so they’d dive in and spend a week or two preparing everything they eat from the foods they don’t feel like they have to avoid, like, for example, plain chicken, a handful of assorted vegetables, and rice.”
Freuman notes that sometimes they end up feeling better, but other times they don’t. “Certainly, if something they were eating regularly was bothering them initially, cutting almost everything out was likely to have swept up the offender in the process!”
By the time the patient gets to her, they are in a state.
“Regardless of how they feel, however, they soon realize they can’t keep up this highly restricted diet—and that’s when they arrive at my office,” Freuman wrote. “They’re confused about which of these foods—if any—are actually bothering them, and have no idea how to figure that out.”
Then, the patient has to start all over, from the beginning, with tests for IgE. And, they have to relearn eating habits they discarded. Sometimes that’s very difficult.
“But the worst-case scenario is, in my opinion, that patients are unable to let go of the notion that this laundry list of foods indicated by the sensitivity test kit is somehow problematic for them,” Freuman said. “They assume they still feel lousy not because they aren’t actually intolerant of the foods they eliminated, but rather because they haven’t yet eliminated enough foods.”
Freuman continued, “I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count, and when I’m unsuccessful at convincing my patient that these tests can be relied on to identify their problems, I’ve watched helplessly as my patient disappears down a rabbit hole of food restriction and avoidance that can, for some people, lead to disordered eating.”
Have Discomfort? Go to an MD
Don’t waste your time, money, and possible healthy dietary habits on at-home tests. If you have symptoms you think are food-related, see a doctor.
An allergy specialist will check for IgE antibody and provide you with proper dietary guidance. You’ll be screened to make sure whatever elimination diet you are assigned is doable and won’t trigger disordered eating. This is especially true for children and teens, who can end up with a lifetime of eating disorder triggers because of a single meaningless home test.
“I certainly understand and sympathize with patients that don’t feel well and are desperate to find a reason,” Min says. “Companies like EverlyWell capitalize on vulnerable people searching for answers. As always, I’d advise discussing with your physician before deciding to go on any kind of drastic diet.”