“My naturopath told me I’m sensitive to these foods”, my client tells me, handing me a wallet-sized, laminated card. Wheat, dairy, eggs, celery, gluten, and about thirty other foods were listed. “I have no idea what to eat now” she says. “I’m intolerant to everything!”
So many people get these ‘food intolerance/sensitivity’ tests, at $500-$700 a pop, and walk around afterwards wondering how they can be ‘intolerant’ to so many foods.
Because I have a deep desire to never hear another person tell me that they’ve had one of these tests, I’ve decided to write this post about them. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and if they stand up to their claims.
Food allergies vs Food Intolerances
First of all, we need to chat for a second about allergies versus intolerances, because that’s an important thing to understand. I see from at least one Toronto-based Naturopath’s website that she’s confused about the two, which is sort of scary. First rule of business: don’t be confused about something you claim to be an expert at.
Food allergies and food intolerances are very different:
Are mediated by the immune system
Cause systemic reactions like vomiting, hives, and anaphylaxis
Can be life threatening
Allergies are IgE mediated – IgE is an antibody that the immune system makes in reaction to a an allergen The purpose of IgE is to protect us from what the body perceives to be a threat – in this case, a food protein that it doesn’t recognize. IgE antibodies sense the protein and cause the allergic reaction, usually immediately after the food is eaten.
Lactose intolerance, for example, is not an allergy. The symptoms of lactose intolerance occur because some people don’t have enough lactase, which is an enzyme that specifically digests lactose – milk sugar. So when people say, ‘I’m allergic to milk’ because they get bloated and farty after having an ice cream, that’s probably not the case.
IF a person has projectile vomiting and hives after eating that same ice cream, that would appear to be an allergy. If a person eats strawberries and develops a rash, that’s likely an allergenic reaction to that fruit. Yes, fruits have proteins in them too, but these can sometimes be tolerated by allergic people if the fruit is cooked to denature the protein.
Legit allergy testing often includes an IgE test, and a food challenge, which is considered the ‘gold standard’, done in a doctor’s office. There are also skin prick and blood tests, both valid but may times inconclusive, and food diaries/food history.
Are not life-threatening
Are mediated by the digestive system, not the immune system
Symptoms of intolerances vary, but are usually gastrointestinal but can include things like migraines
The terms ‘sensitivity’ and ‘intolerance’ are generally used interchangeably.
Food sensitivities are typically blamed for a wide variety of symptoms and health conditions. These include: migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hyperactivity, anxiety, irritability, arthritis, fatigue, muscle soreness, issues with balance and coordination, chronic infections, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, colitis), brain-fog, headaches, acne, eczema and weight gain.
Ah, brain fog. My favorite non-specific symptom that somehow always pops up!
What Are Food Sensitivity Tests?
Food sensitivity tests are usually ordered by naturopaths or other alternative health practitioners. They’re also offered at some pharmacies, even though, in my opinion, that’s totally shifty and their regulatory body should never allow pharmacists to use a non-evidence-based test for diagnosis.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the more popular food sensitivity/intolerance tests out there:
The ALCAT is a blood test that measures swelling of the cells when they’re exposed to the food in question. There is not a single Allergy and Immunology society in the entire world that recognizes the ALCAT as reliable and credible for the diagnosis of food intolerance or allergy. That’s sort of all you need to know about that.
The IgG blood test is probably the most popular of the intolerance tests. The big issue is that IgG is a normal immune response to certain foods in the diet. Meaning, when you eat these foods often, you’ll likely have IgG specific to them in your blood, and that means a positive for those foods on an IgG ‘intolerance test’. Whoops! The presence of this IgG is a completely typical physiological reaction and nothing to be worried about.
So when your IgG food sensitivity test reads positive for a smorgasbord of different foods, it probably means that you’ve recently eaten those foods, not that you’re sensitive or intolerant to them. That’s really the bottom line. You don’t want to waste $700 on a test that shows you nothing. Please don’t.
Recently, someone with an axe to grind sent me a list of citations to research that apparently proves that IgG is legit for food sensitivity testing. The issue with research is that, just because it exists, that doesn’t immediately prove anything. A study has to be well-designed to be credible. Even if IgG has hinted at being able to predict food intolerances, no Allergy and Immunology Society in the developed world recognizes it as being able to do that. That means that as of now, we know that the position on them from reputable agencies is a very strong negative. If any of the research that exists was pro-IgG and convincing, IgG would certainly be part of an official testing protocol, and the positions of these very reputable agencies would have changed.
ALCAT and IgG tests are discredited for food intolerance diagnosis by: The Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (CSACI), the Allergy Society of South Africa, Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, American Society of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and The European Academy of Allergy and Immunology, so I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that you shouldn’t be wasting your money on them.
These are all fringe tests that haven’t been proven at all. You can’t determine someone’s food intolerances by looking into their eyes or performing electroacupuncture on them.
Nope nope nope.
The MRT/LEAP test is one that has actually been done by dietitians for quite some time. In 2016 though, the Commission of Dietetic Registration discontinued its support for it due to insufficient evidence for using it for diagnosis of food intolerances.
Who’s Selling These, and What Are They Promising?
Just like a lot of diets I review, practitioners who sell this testing seem to follow the same sort of messaging to rake in the dough:
- Convince a person that they have a problem
- ‘Diagnose’ the ‘problem’ with an expensive test
- Sell the person a diet or supplements to help with the ‘problem’
Sigh. See how it works?
I went through several cycles of anger, disbelief, and resignation while doing research for this post. I guess that’s what happens when I spend too much time on Naturopathic Doctors’ sites and see the sorts of things they’re selling their patients on, literally and figuratively.
Not all ND’s are like this, but it’s disconcerting to see what some of them are up to. Not okay.
When people are desperate for answers, these tests may be misleading them, big time. And you know that nothing pisses me off more than seeing people being taken advantage of.
So Should I Take A Food Sensitivity Test?
The companies that do these tests are also shifty as hell.
Hemocode, which is a company that offers these bogus tests, is clearly confused when they state right on their homepage that hives are a symptom of food intolerance. Actually they aren’t, Hemocode, so get your shit together. Hives are a systemic response commonly found in food allergies, which this company doesn’t test for. That doesn’t stop them from posting other scary untruths and anxiety-provoking vernacular on their site:
‘A SINGLE FOOD OR INGREDIENT COULD BE KEEPING YOU FROM NUTRITIONAL WELLNESS AND A HEALTHIER LIFESTYLE.’ and ‘NEARLY 1 in 3 PEOPLE SUFFER FROM A FOOD INTOLERANCE AND DON’T EVEN KNOW!’
I can’t imagine where they get their data, but I’m pretty sure it’s from somebody’s active imagination.
Even worse is the content on the ever-popular Rocky Mountain Labs’ site.
In a dark corner, they state: “IgG testing for food is not considered diagnostic for food reactions because a direct cause- effect relationship has not been established. Elevated levels of IgG have not yet been proven to cause patient symptoms, however, more studies are emerging to show a correlation between elevated IgG reactions and a variety of conditions.”
The company that sells these tests is admitting on their site that the tests don’t prove anything. Can you even believe it? Not shocking from a company that also sells a ‘candida’ test. Enough with candida already! Believe me, if you truly have systemic candida, you’ll need a hospital, not this test and a special ‘candida diet’. Insanity, I tell you.
How much more proof do you need that you should back away from anyone who wants to sell you this stuff? The fact that regulated health professionals are allowed to sell something that’s not recognized as accurate or credible and mislead people that it is, is mind boggling. I just can’t.
Overall, these tests have consequences (aside from being a total sham):
- They can cause people to restrict foods from their diet that are totally safe and harmless to them. Doing this will not improve their symptoms.
- They can cause a lot of anxiety, worrying about not-real ‘sensitivities’ and what you should and shouldn’t be eating.
- They can distract you from something that might actually be wrong. If you’re having what you believe are food-related symptoms, an elimination diet is the gold standard to figure out what could be causing them. Don’t waste your time with these tests that won’t tell you anything legit.
- They’re a waste of money. I mean, take the $700 and do something better with it, like NOT giving it to someone who’s trying to scam you.
Have any of you ever had one of these tests? Leave me a comment below (no judgement, I promise XO)