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At-home food sensitivity tests aren’t always accurate and pose potential health risks. Moreover, they can be costly without insurance. It’s always better to get tested by a healthcare provider.
If you’re experiencing symptoms related to food sensitivity, you might be tempted to get an at-home food sensitivity test. But before you buy, knowing if they’re reliable is hella important. (Spoiler: They’re not.)
Here’s everything you need to know about at-home food sensitivity tests, including the risks, costs, and best options.
Food intolerance and food sensitivity are often used interchangeably, but like those fraternal twins you knew in high school, they’re different. One deals with digestion, the other with your body’s immune response.
To keep things straight, here’s a quick cheat sheet of food reactions:
- Food allergy. Severe immune response to a particular food, symptoms can be life-threatening and usually show up immediately anywhere in the body.
- Food sensitivity. A more gradual and often less severe immune response to a particular food, symptoms can show up anywhere in the body either immediately or long after eating.
- Food intolerance. In a digestive response to a particular food, uncomfy symptoms are usually not dangerous and mostly appear in the digestive organs.
If you have a food intolerance, your body can’t properly digest certain foods. The most common food intolerances are gluten or lactose. Though the symptoms of food intolerance – like excessive farting, bloating, nausea, or diarrhea – feel lousy, they’re generally not dangerous in the short term.
If you have a food sensitivity, your body has an immune response to certain foods. The symptoms of the response can show up immediately or sometimes days after eating the culprit food. While the symptoms of food sensitivity can sometimes look like the symptoms of food intolerance, they can show up all over your body. Common symptoms of food sensitivity include:
- brain fog
- joint pain
- skin issues
- stomach pain or bloating
Scientists are still debating the specific causes of food sensitivity, but here are some of the most commonly reported triggers:
- wheat and other grains containing gluten like rye, spelt, and barley
- dairy products containing lactose (milk, cheese, yogurt)
- histamine which can be found in cured meats, avocado, dried fruit, citrus, and fermented foods like soy sauce
- sulfites which are found in wine, beer, and ciders
- tree nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts
- legumes like beans, lentils, and peas
- monosodium glutamate (MSG) found in cured meats and fast foods
Like food sensitivities, food allergies are an immune response to particular foods, but the symptoms are usually immediate and way more severe. Common symptoms of a food allergy are:
- trouble breathing
- dangerously low blood pressure
- severe rashes
- passing out
- facial swelling
If you get any of the above symptoms, you might be experiencing anaphylaxis, which is a fast-moving, life-threatening allergic reaction. So if you suspect you have a food allergy, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor in order to be informed and prepared.
The immune response from food sensitivity tends to be slower and more gradual than a food allergy. So it might be less dangerous than a food allergy, but it can be a lot trickier to identify the problematic food that triggered your problems. At-home food sensitivity tests claim to offer a quick and easy solution to the mystery.
These at-home food sensitivity tests typically use a finger prick method for collecting small samples of your blood that you place on a collection card and mail back to the company for analysis. They then check to see how a particular antibody in your blood called immunoglobulin G (IgG) interacts with an array of food and, voila, your food sensitivity mystery is solved. Or is it?
Not so fast. There’s not much solid evidence backing these tests. Plus, many of the studies companies use to back up their claims are old or sketchy. Some tests even assert they can predict how your body reacts to food based on your genes, but the research on genetic testing and food allergies is also pretty slim.
Even more importantly, the science behind the tests has been called out as somewhat suss. One study says that the IgG interactions are your body’s normal reactions to food antigen So, you might see a “positive” result on an at-home food sensitivity test, but it could mean nothing. Plus, other experts agree, saying that you should stay away from these at-home food sensitivity tests.
Another option might be to go for an at-home food allergy test instead. (Remember, food allergies and food sensitivities are different!) You might need a referral from a doctor, and some of the results might be confusing to interpret, so the best bet is to make an appointment with your doctor to have them conduct the food allergy tests in person.
There are a few potential risks in using an at-home food sensitivity test. First, some of them recommend accompanying the test with an elimination diet. That means you stop eating the foods you usually eat in order to see how you feel, and figure out which one might be disagreeing with your body. However, doing an elimination diet without the supervision of a dietitian or a doctor could lead to malnutrition or disordered eating.
Also, relying on an at-home food sensitivity test might cause you to overlook other root causes of what might be causing your symptoms, like exhaustion, stress other mental wellness concerns, dehydration, or prescription drug side effects.
If you’re still curious about testing for potential food sensitivity or food allergies, here are some at-home test kits to check out:
Food sensitivity is not the same as food allergy or food intolerance. While food allergy involves a severe immune response (usually immediate and potentially life-threatening) and food intolerance causes yucky symptoms in your digestive system, food sensitivity triggers a slower and less severe immune reaction, showing up anywhere in your body, sometimes days after eating.
Identifying food sensitivity culprits can be tricky because of the slow roll-out of the symptoms, and at-home food sensitivity tests claim to solve the mystery by analyzing how particular parts of your blood interact with a wide variety of food. However, scientific evidence for their reliability is scarce, and some studies suggest these tests might be misleading. Going for an at-home food allergy test with proper medical supervision could be a better option.
The best bet is to opt for in-person care with your doctor. Ultimately, relying solely on at-home food sensitivity tests might not just waste your money. They can also make you overlook other potential causes of your symptoms, like stress, dehydration, or prescription drug side effects.