Are At-Home Food Intolerance Tests Worth Your $$$?
As a functional medicine practitioner, I know firsthand how powerful food can be for a person's health. Not only can food pull you further into the depths of disease; it can be your most powerful medicine and help alleviate ongoing symptoms—that is, if you are eating the food that is optimal for your body.
We are all alive because of brilliant biochemistry, each with our own unique makeup. What works for one person doesn't always work for the next, even for those with the same set of health problems. When looking to optimize your health through good food medicine, it can be beneficial to understand your individual food sensitivities—even foods that are considered healthy—so as to make the right decisions with your diet. To really understand the relationship between food and health problems, let's look at the three main types of food reactivities.
These are linked to the immune system and can cause the most serious and immediate reactions such as rashes, swelling, hives, and difficulty breathing. This type of reactivity is irreversible.
These are typically due to enzyme deficiencies and don't directly involve the immune system but occur when your digestive system is irritated by particular foods.
The exact reason these occur is more difficult to pinpoint. Some people can eat small amounts of these foods without experiencing any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may not be as immediate as allergies but can still be just as serious such as brain fog, chronic inflammation, bloating, digestive distress, and migraines.
Needless to say, understanding your individual food reactivity is a key step in managing your overall health regardless of whether your symptoms are severe and long-lasting or easily overlooked and short-lived. While there are many ways to uncover these food reactivities, one of the most definitive ways to clinically look at these is through lab testing. And with more people becoming educated on the importance of health, do-it-yourself wellness has risen in popularity.
In the age of Amazon and instant access to almost anything from the convenience of your home, labs have taken to this by offering a multitude of at-home food sensitivity tests, claiming to shed light on your individual food sensitivities with one simple test—no doctor's visit or complicated elimination diet needed.
How at-home testing works.
Once you place your order, a kit will be delivered straight to your home. Each kit will vary slightly, but generally they contain detailed instructions and the necessary instruments to complete the test. These results are gained through blood analysis, so a finger prick is required to conduct the tests. By looking at your levels of IgG antibodies to particular foods (immune reaction or reactivity), these tests are able to detect even low levels of IgG activity to determine which foods could be causing problems for you. These are the most common tests on the market.
Food Intolerance Test ($380): This test looks at your response to 200 foods, making it one of the most comprehensive at-home kits on the market.
Food Sensitivity Test ($159): This test is less comprehensive than the Pinner Test as it looks at your response to only 96 foods. You also have the option to upgrade to the Food Sensitivity Expansion Test, which will test an additional 88 foods.
Food Sensitivity+ ($249.99): This option not only looks at your body's response to different foods, but it takes it a step further and looks at the relationship your DNA has to your ability to digest certain foods such as caffeine.
Food Sensitivity Test ($199): Like EverlyWell, this test looks at 96 foods.
The pros and cons of home testing.
When prospective patients send me their at-home food sensitivity lab results and I see numerous food reactivities, it often tells me that the problem is an overall lack of gut health and an overreaction of the immune system to these foods and has less to do with the foods that are positive themselves.
I have also seen over the years that retaking one of these tests months later, patients often see different foods showing up positive. Why? Labs are snapshots in time. The results for any lab, food sensitivity labs included, are looking at the specific day and time that the lab specimen was collected. Life and health are dynamic, so on a different day, the immune system may be behaving differently and reacting differently to different foods. And in the case of someone with multiple food sensitivities, their immune system is even more likely to have ups, downs, twists, and turns depending on the day.
If you have many food sensitivities showing up on your test results, rotating the foods you eat, keeping your immune system more calmed and balanced, and actively working on improving gut health is generally a good idea.
My goal as a functional medicine practitioner is not to have patients just avoid these positive foods in their lives but treat the underlying issues causing the sensitivities to flare up. Depending on how many foods are positive, I may have patients limit or avoid those foods for a time while actively working on healing the underlying gut-immune problems that are causing the reactions in the first place.
Additionally, if there are numerous food sensitivities shown on an at-home test kit, this can add to the stress and anxiety for the person, as they think they can eat nothing but air and ice cubes. Stress and anxiety are not good for gut health, or health in general! For some people, labs like these without a qualified functional medicine doctor or coach can fuel food anxiety and eating problems like orthorexia, so if this feels like something you'd be predisposed to, I'd recommend avoiding them.
Who are the at-home tests good for?
These at-home labs are a good, base-level window into how your immune system is reacting to foods. If you can't or don't want to work with a functional medicine practitioner right now, I see these labs as being beneficial for people who have tried healing their guts on their own but feel like they aren't getting anywhere or are stuck at a plateau. For people who have cleaned up their diet and have been focusing on gut health already but still feel like something is missing, it could find out that there are a few foods that they are sensitive to still, and removing those foods can help push them past that healing plateau. I also recommend direct-to-consumer labs like Viome, which can really give someone a good overall look at the landscape of their microbiome.
Ultimately, for those not ready to work directly with a functional medicine practitioner, these can still give you enough information to start cleaning up your diet.
My other recommendation, which is free for anyone? An elimination diet. For anyone who wants to start their journey of gut healing and finding food sensitivities on their own, an elimination diet is a great start that just about anyone can do. This way, you can explore for yourself how foods make you feel by giving your body some time focusing on gut healing foods, then slowly reintroducing potentially problematic foods for your gut one by one to see how you feel eating them again.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.