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Are At-home Food Sensitivity Tests Effective?

Spoiler Alert: They Are Not

At-home health products and tests often advertise convenience and accuracy as some of their key benefits. But are they too good to be true?

In the case of at-home food sensitivity tests, Northwestern Medicine Physician Melissa M. Watts, MD says yes, they are misleading.

"These food sensitivity tests are not scientific at all," explains Dr. Watts, who has expertise in allergy and immunology. "They can also be expensive, and they can cause you to take things out of your diet that don't need to be eliminated."

The word "sensitivity" can be a red flag, Dr. Watts adds, as it is more of a buzzword than clinical language your physician might use. Typically, "allergies" and "intolerances" are how a physician and other trained medical professionals would classify your body's reactions to certain foods. There are major distinctions between these terms, however.

Understanding Food Allergies

Food allergies involve your immune system, which controls how your body defends itself. With food allergies, the immune system inappropriately responds to a specific food protein. Symptoms are severe and sudden and typically occur immediately or up to a couple of hours after you consume certain food. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Skin reactions
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
  • Shortness of breath, including wheezing and chest tightness
  • Abdominal pain with vomiting or diarrhea

These symptoms can be serious and life-threatening. They appear every time the allergen is consumed, and they can result from ingestion of just a small amount of the allergen. A classic example of this is peanut allergies in children, Dr. Watts says.

Understanding Food Intolerance

Food intolerance involves your digestive system and occurs when your body is unable to properly digest certain foods. With food intolerance, you can likely eat small amounts of the food without major problems.

While there is some overlap in symptoms of allergies and intolerances, Dr. Watts says the key differences that indicate food intolerance include:

  • Common gastrointestinal symptoms, such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea
  • Symptoms that develop hours, or even days after consumption
  • Uncertainty as to which food is causing the issues, given the delay in symptom development

These symptoms, while not life-threatening, can impact your quality of life and cause confusion around which foods you can eat and which foods you should avoid.

Getting Proper Care

The at-home tests are not the way to go when it comes to getting a better understanding of your health and body, says Dr. Watts.

"If your symptoms are severe and make you suspect a food allergy, I recommend seeing an allergist," she explains. "But if you have symptoms more aligned with food intolerances, start a food diary. It can help you view patterns in your diet before you start consulting your physician."