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Are Food Sensitivity Tests Accurate?

Learn the evidence behind food sensitivity tests if you suffer food sensitivities with a thyroid condition.
Are Food Sensitivity Tests Accurate?
Last updated:
7/19/2022
Medically Reviewed by:

In this article:


We now know that our overall health is intricately tied to our digestive health, so many people are turning toward food sensitivity tests to see if what they eat is behind some of their health problems. With food sensitivity tests becoming more available for people at home, more people use these tools to get to the bottom of issues like skin problems, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, fatigue, hormonal imbalance, and moodiness. While they are popular and are sometimes recommended by functional practitioners, the question remains: are food sensitivity tests accurate? Let’s find out.

 

Defining a food sensitivity

There is currently no medical definition for food sensitivity, so it is often thrown around to encompass food-related problems in general, including a food allergy or intolerance. Some people will separate a food intolerance from a food sensitivity, whereas others will consider it one and the same.

 

A food sensitivity should not be confused with a food allergy, as a food allergy is a diagnosed medical condition and can even cause severe health consequences and death. However, with that said, food sensitivities can undoubtedly impact your quality of life. They may even affect your overall health and wellness.

 

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance affects your digestive system and occurs from a lack of a specific enzyme that helps you digest certain foods. Typically, symptoms of food intolerance come on within a few hours after eating the food as it makes its way through the digestive tract. Food intolerance causes symptoms that are not life-threatening and may even cause no symptoms if you eat just a tiny amount of the food. 


Common food sensitivities include:

  • Lactose: Many adults lack lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar in milk and dairy products. 
  • Histamine: Histamines occur naturally in foods like cheese, pineapples, bananas, avocados, and chocolate. People with histamine intolerant don’t make enough diamine oxidase enzyme to break down this chemical.
  • Gluten: Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley, and gluten sensitivity means your body has a more challenging time digesting gluten. This is not the same as having celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which gluten damages the small intestines. 

 

Symptoms of food intolerance often include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and bloating
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach

 

Food allergy

On the other hand, a food allergy is an immune-mediated reaction, meaning it affects the immune system. Exposure to a particular food protein causes the immune system to go into overdrive, protecting the body from what it thinks is a threat. Symptoms of a food allergy can come on within minutes of eating even a tiny amount of the allergy-inducing food and can cause a severe, life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. 

 

One of the most common food allergens is peanuts. When someone with a peanut allergy encounters the protein in this nut (even by touching or breathing in severe cases), the immune system mounts an immune response, rapidly producing antibodies and releasing a cascade of chemicals to help fight off this antigen. As a result, people can experience skin rashes, vomiting, and breathing problems. An allergic reaction to food can be life-threatening, so people should altogether avoid foods they are allergic to unless they are under the care of an allergist. 

Food sensitivities and Hashimoto's disease

Hashimoto's disease causes chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland. And the more dietary stress you put on yourself, the more likely you are to experience inflammation. This inflammation can worsen your autoimmune reactions or interfere with your thyroid function.

Dietary triggers can lead to increased gastrointestinal distress, chronic inflammation, and a possible elevation in thyroid antibodies. Exposure to reactive food may cause symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, acid reflux, gas, or cramping. You may also experience respiratory, muscular, or skin symptoms.

The most common food sensitivities found in people with Hashimoto’s are gluten, dairy, soy, grains, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers), nuts, and seeds.

Each of us is unique with individual sensitivities so what is a trigger for one person may not be for another. As is the case, a food sensitivity test or elimination diet could be beneficial to identify your particular triggers.

 

What is a food sensitivity test?

 

A food sensitivity test looks for sensitivities when it comes to digesting foods. It aims to identify foods behind digestive issues like bloating, irritation, and diarrhea. There are different ways you can test for food sensitivity based on what type of food is causing problems.  

 

People testing for lactose intolerance can take a hydrogen breath test to see if they have high levels of hydrogen in their breath after drinking a product with lactulose. High hydrogen levels indicate their body is unable to digest foods with lactose. 

 

Aside from a breath test, food sensitivity tests may also use your saliva or a blood sample via finger prick to look for sensitivities. However, when it comes to diagnosing food sensitivities, the most important factor in determining sensitivity is not necessarily a test but the symptoms you experience when you eat certain things. 

 

Are food sensitivity tests accurate?

We see at-home food sensitivity tests marketed everywhere now, it seems. Still, the question remains: are these tests accurate? Regrettably, the evidence is lacking to support at-home food sensitivity testing. 

 

And what is more, these tests are usually quite expensive. They often do not deliver valid results to help you make better choices about your health. With that said, there are plenty of at-home tests that are accurate and effective, including at-home thyroid blood testing

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When it comes to detecting sensitivities through saliva or cheek swabs, there is certainly potential for these tests to become more accurate and valuable. However, they are still in the experimental phase. Additionally, some tests may analyze your hair, but there is no evidence to support this testing method for food sensitivities. 

 

Some at-home food allergy tests also look at Immunoglobulin G (IgG) markers through a finger prick. However, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology states that IgG testing is not recommended. It is typical for the immune system to produce IgG when we eat, and those levels even increase in foods we eat more often. 

 

Nevertheless, IgE testing is the most reliable blood test for a food allergy, and that is done by a blood test ordered through your healthcare provider. Also, allergists often do skin testing to look for IgE-mediated reactions from food.

 

What should you do with the information from a food sensitivity test?

 

Taking an at-home food sensitivity test can help to do an elimination diet of those foods to see if you start feeling better. Try to eliminate these foods for a few weeks and then gradually re-introduce them one at a time. If you see symptoms return, it is probably a sign that you should limit or remove the triggering food from your diet.

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But, if you haven’t yet put the money down for an at-home food sensitivity test, an elimination diet is an easy, reliable way to see what foods may be problematic for you. Remember, the best way to diagnose food sensitivity is through the symptoms you experience when you eat certain things. 

 

Elimination diets may also be beneficial for people with a health condition like Hashimoto’s disease to identify any dietary triggers. Many people with Hashimoto’s find that certain foods exacerbate their autoimmune symptoms and cause flare-ups, so following a diet like the autoimmune protocol diet for a certain length of time can identify problematic foods. Following a strict diet can be challenging, so it helps to have a nutritionist at your side. 

A note from Paloma Health

 

If you think certain foods are causing or worsening your health problems, make an appointment with your health care provider to discuss your symptoms. Your provider can make a referral to an allergist for further testing if needed. Then, based on your results, consider working with a registered dietitian nutritionist to design a nutrition plan for you based on your diagnosis, health needs, and food preferences.

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Julia Walker, RN, BSN

Clinical Nurse

Julia Walker, RN, BSN, is a clinical nurse specializing in helping patients with thyroid disorders. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Regis University in Denver and a Bachelor of Arts in the History of Medicine from the University of Colorado-Boulder. She believes managing chronic illnesses requires a balance of medical interventions and lifestyle adjustments. Her background includes caring for patients in women’s health, critical care, pediatrics, allergy, and immunology.

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