INVESTIGATES: Over-the-Counter Food Sensitivity Tests put to the test

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Are you feeling bloated… nauseous…. fatigued…. or get headaches after eating?

“Well it was really painful. I was actually at Cheesecake factory,” recalled Rachel Simmons.

“A lot of belly pains,” Janette Walls said.

“One time I ate shrimp and then the next morning I woke up my face was really swollen,” Jayden Long said.

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Dr. Sunil Joshi said he sees a lot of patients coming in to his office complaining of these kinds of symptoms.

Not only is he an allergist and immunologist with Family Allergy and Asthma Consultants but his 15-year-old daughter Saloni has several serious food allergies.

“My hazelnut allergy is probably my worst food allergy,” Saloni Joshi said.

The Mayo Clinic and National Institute of Health (NIH) says that physical reactions to foods are pretty common but it doesn’t mean it’s an allergy.

A true food allergy is an immune system reaction that can cause your throat to close or your body to break out in hives.

For Saloni that’s cashews, hazel nuts, and walnuts.

“A food intolerance is completely different than a food allergy,” Dr. Joshi said.

Right now many new over-the-counter products claim to diagnose food sensitivity issues.

With the help of Dr. Joshi and Saloni, Action News Jax put two of those products to the test.

The first test we tried out was the Everlywell Food Sensitivity Test.

It cost us $160 and claims to see how your immune system responds to 96 different foods.

It requires a blood sample.

The second test we tried was the 5 Strands Food Intolerance Test for around $100.

It looks at over 600 substances in food and food additives and it required five strands of Saloni’s hair.

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After grabbing the samples from his daughter Dr. Joshi sealed up the packages and we sent them out in the mail.

While these test don’t claim to be allergy tests we wanted to see how they compared to the foods Saloni is allergic to.

To do that Dr. Joshi performed an allergy skin test with some foods that he knows his daughter is allergic to and some he knows her body doesn’t react strongly to.

It’s done by pricking the skin with a little bit of fluid that contains food proteins

He said this test is the gold standard for testing food allergies not only because the results are accurate, but fast. You get them within 15 minutes.

If you have an allergy your skin will get red and itchy like a mosquito bite.

For Saloni, hazel nut and walnut had the biggest reaction.

“She has had allergic reactions when she’s had these tree nuts in the past and her skin test kind of confirm that for us,” Dr. Joshi said.

A little more than a week later we heard back from the over-the counter test companies.

Everlywell said our test samples were “insufficient for processing,” so we requested a new test.

But 5 Strands emailed us 16 pages of results.

Each substance was graded from level one to three in terms of food intolerances.

Some of the results were spot on.

For hazelnuts, Solani got a level three reaction a severe intolerance.

But not everything added up when compared to Dr. Joshi’s test.

Saloni eats celery without issues but the 5 Strands report puts her at a level two.

And what about cashews?

“She’s allergic to cashews. We know that. She’s had allergic reactions to cashews and that came back elevated, the same level as almonds which she can eat every day. So it doesn’t jive,” Dr. Joshi said.

Dr. Joshi there is a real risk if a test comes back with a false negative for an allergy.

“It comes back negative but your history is very very striking for a real peanut allergy. You may get that test and think you can go ahead and eat peanuts when in fact you still probably can’t,” he said.

Dr. Joshi also said a false negative could convince people to change their diet eliminating important nutrients the body needs.

“You also then are getting an expert opinion to go over the results with you and take your history with you.

Action News Jax is always working to provide you with as many expert opinions as possible so we asked our medical expert Dr. Michelle Aquino. She’s an internist and doctor osteopathic medicine at Baptist Health.

“If it’s a mild sensitivity thing, doing these over the counter tests can be helpful,” Dr. Aquino said.

She said while these test do provide some benefit, you should seek professional expertise for serious food allergy concerns.

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“If you eat something and you have a reaction where your lip swells your tongue swells, you ended up in the ER, you have a severe allergic reaction that can kill you. I would not try the over the counter ones,” Dr. Aquino said.

As for the Dr. Joshi and Solani they’ll stay vigilant to the allergy threats she faces.

That’s why you have so many EpiPens at home,” Dr. Joshi said.

The type of test administrated by an allergies usually costs under a hundred dollars to test ten types of foods and often will be covered by insurance.

We received a new test from Everlywell. We’re providing them with new samples and will report the results you when we get them.

Action News Jax reached out 5Strands Affordable Testing to get it’s response regarding the results of our test. Its President, Ruth Moore, raised several points regarding the conditions of traditional allergy skin testing. That included telling us about her own experience with a similar test. She told us the following:

  1. The first was the hygiene and sterility with which the testing did not occur – i.e. no agents were used cleanse skin before the dermal layer was perforated.
  2. Next, the specific allergen agents in the test that were used on my back were not completely accurate to the various proteins that a person can be exposed to. An example of this is the gluten / wheat issue I have. I tested negative for an allergy to wheat and the allergist made no mention of it, but for nearly 20 years, I became sicker and sicker. Through functional medicine, we learned that my body is allergic multiple gluten proteins that many allergists do not test for. This level of testing is often reserved for specialty laboratories that do ­only this testing.
  3. When my back noted several areas of histaminic reactions, the provider looked for “wheel and flare” reactions vs. local reactions (within 1 – 2 inches) and these were (subjectively) graded in severity from 1 to 5. The problems with this system is that once a histamine reaction is established, the proximity of other nearby punctures can cause false positives. And in the case of wheel and flare reactions, when a wheel and flare reaction occurs, it can indicate a neural inflammation in response to multiple, concurrent histamine reactions.”

Moore also questioned if the compounds in our test where identical to those that are tested with her company’s product.

Regarding chocolate, she wrote, “There are several types of chocolate that are commercially available, with each base cacao plant grown in varying soils, subject to different chemicals in the washing and manufacturing processes, and finally exposed to multiple variables in the packaging and shipping processes. The scientific answer is that chocolate (again which varieties - white, milk, or dark) itself has many chemicals within it. In the case of the anonymous patient who eats chocolate every day, your allergist looked for a dermal reaction only. He or she is not trained to look for neurobiological reactions that arise from exposures that can affect amino acids levels in the body, neurotransmitters, and the HPA axis. To do so would be considered practicing out of the field of his or her expertise and could lead to malpractice. A functional medicine approach would be to do a lifestyle analysis, evaluate seemingly in obvious symptoms like flatulence, headaches, or lethargy, look at biostatistics, review cortisol levels, and evaluate heart rate variability to see if there were changes in the autonomic nervous system.”

Regarding celery & cashew nuts, she wrote, “The scientific answer is that raw celery and cashews also have many chemicals within them. The premise that a person MUST have a noted physical reaction to determine an allergy is false, likewise the fact that a person does have a symptom does not mean that a person is allergic to the whole item… the person may only have an allergy to a component of the item. Again, without more specific knowledge in functional medicine, your allergist could be missing something big (i.e. potential anaphylaxis) based on related cross-food issues.”

She says comparing the 5Strands Test to a skin allergy test is similar to comparing tomatoes & oranges, saying quote, “Both are fruits, but one is commonly perceived to be a vegetable. It is the same for both immunoglobulin (allergy testing through blood) and skin prick testing (to observe possible histamine reactions) for diagnosis, verses bioresonance testing. Bioresonance testing differs completely and does not measure clinical allergies, only sensitivities that the body may have when evaluated in totality with the mineral, nutritional, and environmental tests that 5strands offers as part of its deluxe packaging. The science behind this is the EXACT same science that NASA uses to measure gasses and elements in deep space by comparing their frequencies within the electromagnetic spectrum to what is visible under the mechanical separation of light in a laboratory.”

Upson also went on to say, “The 5 strand test is an entry level test that offers the consumer the opportunity to take a proactive and empowered approach to personal wellness – it is not meant to be, nor it is recommended to be used as a diagnostic tool. If a licensed provider uses this test as an entry level indicator of sensitivities, the patient can be educated to make solid lifestyle changes. In the case of a licensed provider using this test to explore differential diagnoses and researching the possibility of functional medicine applications, the provider should have training in functional medicine (and many do not) which medical schools may only offer as a one semester elective.”