Last updated on June 27th, 2019 at 04:11 am
Food Sensitivity Testing 101
Food sensitivity is a big problem and it’s no surprise, some people just don’t handle certain foods well.
Whether it’s moderate intestinal distress, severe allergies or skin reactions; not all foods are right for every person.
Our mission with this article is to do a deep dive into the world of food sensitivity testing, what it is, why you should (or shouldn’t) do it and some of the options you have available both at-home, or in a clinical setting at the local level.
What Is Food Sensitivity?
First, let’s clear up a little confusion. There are 3 main terms used to describe sensitivity to food, yet they’re all lumped under “food sensitivity”, instead of being used individually as they should be.
The best way to approach your sensitivity to food is to first understand which term applies to you.
The 3 most common terms for food sensitivity are food allergy, food sensitivity and food intolerance. We’ll touch on them briefly here then dive into them later.
Food Allergy: This isn’t just a sensitivity to food, this is a downright allergy! Allergies can range from slight irritation to life-threatening, so confusing a food allergy with sensitivity can be a serious mistake.Food allergies are an immune system response (IgE) to certain foods and often carry the distinction of reacting rapidly and with very little exposure to the allergy.
Food Sensitivity: The most commonly used “blanket” term for those whose bodies react in an undesired fashion to certain foods. However, unlike intolerance, food sensitivity is an immune system response (IgG, white blood cells and other immune system molecules) and can occur at any time from a few hours to a few days after food is ingested.
Food Intolerance: Intolerance, which can often be defined as a poor ability to digest or absorb certain foods, is not an immune system response, though, reaction to certain foods can happen within 30 minutes to 2 days later – so, it can be very difficult to pinpoint which foods are causing the reaction.
Before we explain these 3 types any further, it might make more sense to talk about the immune system’s response so you understand what’s happening for each of these terms.
What Is IgE and IgG?
IgE, known scientifically as immunoglobulin E, is a type of antibody that’s created on-demand by the immune system to fight allergens in what’s defined as an “overreaction” to defend the body against attack.
Basically, your immune system is detecting an allergen and “calling in the troops” (IgE) to help battle the invader (allergen).
When these antibodies are created they travel to individual cells and these cells release a chemical that causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Much like inflammation, this allergic reaction is your bodies response to an allergen.
In an even more unique twist, IgE’s have specific “types” and each IgE type is only responsive to a specific allergen, meaning one person can be allergic to shellfish because they have the IgE type that reacts to shellfish, whereas another individual may be allergic to multiple allergens and their IgE types will trigger on contact with any allergens that are a match.
IgG stands for Immunoglobulin G, and similar to IgE above, IgG is an antibody that helps protect us against bacterial and viral infections.
An interesting fact, IgG is the most common type of antibody found in humans, making up 75% of serum antibodies!
IgE & IgG Testing
First and foremost, let’s just get this out of the way. Both types of tests, IgE and IgG are blood tests. This means that not only will blood need to be drawn to analyze your IgE/IgG levels, all of this advanced blood work must be done in a certified lab.
We’ll definitely cover at-home IgE and IgG testing in this article, just be aware that the difference between taking this test at home vs. in a clinic is that you’re able to draw the blood yourself at home (it’s easy, really) and mail the package back to the lab.
Overall taking a test at home is a very similar process to having lab work done in a clinic as they’ll need to send out the blood sample and wait the same time for results.
Whether you feel more comfortable in a clinical setting or at home is definitely your prerogative. Our mission is to help educate you about the process so you can decide for yourself.
Typical IgE testing (allergy testing) has always been done in a clinical setting. As described in the previous section, blood is drawn and sent off to a lab to determine an individuals IgE levels in response to certain allergens.
In the last decade the at-home testing market has really grown, allowing people to perform tests at their own convenience at often much lower prices.
Average Cost Of IgE Testing In A Clinic
This may or may not blow your mind, but allergy testing can range from a little over $50 to $2,000+ depending on what you’re testing for and how you’re testing (blood test, skin test)
Talk about a wide range of prices!
For a skin test you’re looking at $300 or less, typically. It’s not a very intrusive test, a simple prick of the skin is all it takes. If you get a reaction, this would show an allergy.
Of course, that’s assuming you get it right the first time! Imagine needing to run a battery of skin tests because you have no idea which food you’re allergic to.
Those costs would really add up.
Now blood tests, this is where the prices start to get real ugly, $500 – $2,000+. As you may know, blood tests are not as simple as a “wait and see” skin test.
For a blood test you need to get your blood drawn in a physicians office. Then the blood sample needs to be sent out to a lab to determine the IgE levels. Then you’ll need to get the results, which may require another visit.
And after all of that you still may not actually know what you’re allergic to, just THAT you’re allergic to something!
Now that we know a little more about the difference between IgE (food) and IgG (bacterial & viral) antibodies, we can start talking about the specific types of food-related allergies and reactions to get a clearer picture.
When it comes to food allergies, we’re dealing with IgE antibodies and IgE levels. And since you already know that when IgE detects an allergen it reacts, it’s only natural that if an antibody such as IgE is being created to fight an allergen, your IgE levels would be higher than normal during this time.
NOTE: The FDA has very strict food labeling requirements, especially when it comes to identifying the use of known allergens as an ingredient, trace amounts or cross-contamination.
Please refer to the link below to see the full FDA guidance on food labeling requirements for allergens.
Food Allergies In Children
According to the CDC “The prevalence of food allergies among children increased 18% during 1997-2007” – that’s a massive spike!
The CDC estimates 4% – 6% of all children suffer from food allergies and to help combat this issue they’ve developed guidelines for educators and parents to follow to help prevent allergy contact for children at school.
So, let’s talk a little bit about types of food allergies and then we can get right into how these allergies are tested.
Most Common Types Of Food Allergies
Please keep in mind this isn’t a definitive food allergy list. Think of it more like “top offenders”, and what better way to kick off a list than to start with the “big 8”, the 8 most feared food allergies in the world.
Many allergies have the same histamine reactions and it’s advised that for severe allergies you keep an epinephrine injector (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, .et al) with you at all times.
Cow’s Milk Allergy
Sure, cows are cute and milk, to many people, is incredibly delicious and part of their daily lives (yay cereal!), but for some (mostly children under 3 years of age) cows milk can be an allergy and extreme irritant.
Scientific studies suggest that cow’s milk allergy (whether IgE or non-IgE) affects up to 3% of all children under the age of 3, and that 90% of all of those affected will simply outgrow the allergy as they age.
Symptoms Of A Cow’s Milk Allergy
- Gut Inflammation
- Anaphylaxis (Extreme/Rare Cases)
Dairy Products Containing Cow Milk
- Milk: All types of cow’s milk, buttermilk,Powdered or Evaporated Milk
- Cheese (Cow)
- Cream (Heavy, Whipped, Sour, Cream Cheese)
- Butter & Butter Fats
- Ice Cream
The list of products that contain cow’s milk is absolutely massive and deserves its own article, so we’ll leave them out, just know that you have to pay extra special attention to any dish that’s “creamy” or has a “milk” taste to it if you have an allergy to cow milk.
Sad, but true. The common chicken egg. The food that’s been labeled one of the most perfect super foods on Earth is an allergen to many people.
Also, keep in mind that when someone is diagnosed as being allergic to a chicken egg, many physicians will recommend not eating eggs of any kind.
Similar to cow’s milk, eggs are an allergen that tends to affect young children, and while more children outgrow an allergy to milk, nearly 70% of all children will outgrow their allergy to eggs as well.
For those that remain allergic, the only way to prevent an egg-related allergy is to maintain and egg-free diet. Which, unfortunately, is incredibly hard to do. Not because it’s hard to avoid an egg in its whole form, but because of the many items that contain eggs as an ingredient.
Common Foods That Contain Eggs
U.S. Law Requires All Food Manufacturers That Use Egg Proteins To List “Egg” In The Label.
- Breakfast Egg Recipes: omelet, quiche, crepes, pancakes, frittata.
- Pasta (Regular + Egg Noodles)
- Salad Dressings
- French Toast
- Pies (Cream-Filled)
- Ice Cream
Symptoms Of An Egg Allergy
- Gut Inflammation
- Anaphylaxis (Extreme/Rare Cases)
Whether you love fish or loathe fish, some people simply don’t have a choice. A Fish allergy is the 3rd largest food allergy in the world and affects millions of people.
In addition to the number of people affected, fish allergies have some of the most severe reactions, most commonly anaphylaxis and it’s advised that if you have a fish allergy to always carry an epinephrine injector.
NOTE: It’s important to remember that finned fish (i.e., halibut, salmon, tuna, .etc are not shellfish (i.e., crab, lobster, oysters, clams, .etc), and being allergic to finned fish (or vice versa) does not mean you will be allergic to the other.
Common Fish That Cause Allergic Reactions
- Tuna (Blue Fin & Yellow Fin)
Symptoms Of A Fish Allergy
Tree Nut Allergy
The humble nut. So innocuous, yet for some, an extreme and possibly deadly allergy.
Allergies to tree nuts are one of the few allergies that are considered to be life-long, as only 9% of children who have tree nut allergies outgrow them as they age.
It has generally been proven (not in all cases, of course) that if someone is allergic to one type of tree nut, they’re likely to be allergic to other types, or all types of tree nuts.
It is for this reason that physicians who specialize in allergies recommend that anyone with an allergy to a specific tree nut abstain from all tree nuts.
And due to the severity of tree nut allergies, and the widespread use of tree nuts in everything from food to skincare products, it’s imperative that those who are allergic practice extreme caution when using any product that may contain tree nuts.
Types Of Tree Nuts That Cause Allergic Reactions
- Brazil nuts
- Hazelnuts (This includes Nutella!)
- Macadamia nuts
- Pine nuts
Keep in mind that tree nuts can be found outside their whole form in variations such as flours, butters, pastes, alcohols and more.
Since a tree nut allergy can be so severe any food product that’s made or distributed within the United States must include a mandatory warning if it contains or may contain tree nuts. This includes any food that is processed in a facility that also process tree nuts.
A shellfish allergy is a little more complicated in scope than some of the other food allergies because there are actually two different versions of shellfish, and being allergic to one doesn’t necessarily mean you would allergic to the other.
Although you may be able to tolerate one group of shellfish vs. the other, it’s advised that you speak with a physician if you plan to eat any shellfish as shellfish allergies can be extremely severe with even trace exposure.
Crustacea: These are crustaceans, such as crab, lobster, shrimp.
Mollusks: A mollusk is an animal such as a clam, oyster, mussel & starfish.
Shellfish allergies are known to be life-long allergies, and typically the first allergic reaction will occur as an adult.
The reactions from a shellfish allergy can often be severe, including anaphylaxis and it’s advised that you carry an epinephrine injector at all times if you have this allergy as even exposure in trace amounts can trigger an allergic response.
The FDA requires that all food manufacturers that work with shellfish in any capacity, whether included directly in the food, or manufactured at a facility that also processes shellfish – include the warning on their labels.
Many physicians will also suggest that those allergic to shellfish completely avoid restaurants where seafood is primarily served as the likelihood of cross-contamination is very high.
Symptoms Of A Shellfish Allergy
Remember, as even trace amounts of shellfish can cause an allergic reaction, cross-contamination is a very real concern with nearly any of the big 8 allergies so it’s advised to take care in eating food from outside sources.
A wheat allergy is extremely common among children under 12 and many of us can recall more than a few people that have suffered from this allergy as a child.
Does that mean you can’t have a wheat allergy as an adult? Of course, you can, however, it’s been reported that by age 12 nearly 70% of all children with wheat allergies outgrow the allergy.
That’s a positive sign, but what remains to be seen is if past wheat allergies affect adults in milder forms, such as gluten intolerance.
Symptoms Of A Wheat Allergy
- Gut Inflammation
- Anaphylaxis (In Severe Cases)
As adults it’s quite easy to confuse a mild wheat allergy with gluten intolerance, which is something we’ll cover in just a little bit.
Types Of Foods Containing Wheat That Cause Allergic Reactions
- Bread & Bread crumbs (nearly all types)
- Durum (wheat flour)
- Flour (nearly all types, including all-purpose)
- Pasta (nearly all types)
- Wheat grass
- Ales & Beers
- Battered foods (hush puppies, corn dogs, battered shrimp & halibut)
- Breaded foods (chicken nuggets, chicken fried steak, .etc)
Much like the other food allergies, wheat is no exception when it comes to FDA requirements for labeling products. The same strict standards of labeling apply to manufacturers that use wheat or wheat byproducts as an ingredient or process food in a facility that also processes wheat.
Anyone with a wheat allergy is advised to read product labels carefully and those with severe wheat allergies, such as those that experience anaphylaxis, are advised to carry an epinephrine injector with them at all times.
A peanut, is not a tree nut (that rhymed!), it’s actually not even really a “nut” in the way we think of one. It is, instead, a legume.
Much like its close cousins the lentil and soybean, this peanut can pack a lot of allergy punch into that tiny little unsalted shell.
So much so, in fact, that those with peanut allergies can be affected even with trace amounts (just like a shellfish allergy) and reactions can be so severe that they can lead to anaphylaxis.
Peanut allergies are also considered to be one of the few life-long allergies in the big 8. With only 20% of children outgrowing their peanut allergy into adulthood, it’s clear that most of the people who have peanut allergies at some point in their life will very likely always be allergic to peanuts.
Like many severe allergies, those with severe allergic reactions to peanuts are advised to carry an epinephrine injector with them at all times.
As is the case with other severe allergies, the FDA labeling requirements are incredibly strict for food manufacturers that use peanuts or peanut byproducts as well as process products in a facility that also process peanuts.
Any use of a peanut as an ingredient, or chance for cross-contamination in the manufacturing process is required to be mentioned on the product label.
Symptoms Of A Peanut Allergy
- Gut Inflammation
- Anaphylaxis (In Severe Cases)
Types Of Foods Containing Peanuts That Cause Allergic Reactions
- Peanut Oil
- Peanut Butter
- Mixed Nuts (Usually have peanuts)
In addition to the obvious sources (whole peanuts), the risk of interaction with peanuts in other products, or through cross-contamination, is especially high when you consider peanut oil can be used to fry most anything, and peanut butter is an ingredient in many creamy dessert-style foods.
You can find peanuts sprinkled on top of chocolate (drumstick ice cream), or in candy bars such as Payday, Snickers, Bit O’ Honey and many more.
It’s important that if you suffer from a peanut allergy that you carefully read all food labels and avoid restaurants where cross-contamination is high. Thai restaurants, Asian fusion restaurants, and restaurants that use peanut oil as a frying agent would be primary types to avoid.
Soy Allergy (Soybean Allergy)
A soybean allergy is incredibly common in babies and young children, and it’s been noted that most outgrow this allergy in their childhood.
Soy is a common ingredient in baby formula, so it only makes sense that you’d learn of this allergy so quickly as a parent if you’re using formula to feed your baby.
If, however, a child has been breast-feed until they were old enough to eat solid foods, a soy allergy could come as a bit of a shock, especially once you consider how many food products actually contain soy!
Also consider that some of the primary risk factors for developing a soy allergy can be hereditary. If a family member has a soybean allergy, or an allergy to a legume such as peanuts, lentils or beans, a young child will be at higher risk for a soybean allergy.
While it’s rare that a soy allergy will cause anaphylaxis, as reactions tend to be on the mild spectrum, it can happen, and if you’re severely allergic to soy or any other allergen it’s recommended that you always carry an epinephrine injector at all times.
Symptoms Of A Soy Allergy
- Swelling Of Tongue or Throat
- Gut Inflammation
- Anaphylaxis (In Very Severe Cases)
In addition to the obvious whole soybean products and byproducts, such as oils and proteins, that are used in 1,000 of products, the foods below are notorious for containing soy as a primary ingredient.
Types Of Foods Containing Soybeans That Cause Allergic Reactions
- Infant Formula
- Low Fat Peanut Butter
- Meal Replacement Shakes
- Meat Substitutes
- Processed Meats
Similar to peanuts, many restaurants and certain types of foods predominantly use soybeans as an ingredient. Asian cuisine is one of the largest users of soy ingredients in their recipes.
Thankfully, much like the other big 8 allergies, the FDA has very strict labeling requirements for soy products. Any manufacturer that uses soybeans or its derivatives in their product, as well as processing food at a facility that also processes soybeans, must list this clearly on the label.
We’ve covered allergies in-depth, and now it’s time to take a look at food sensitivities. What they are and how they differ from both food allergies and food intolerance.
When it comes to food sensitivities we must remember that these aren’t food allergies, they are often mild-to-moderate reactions (non-allergic) to certain foods, involving the digestive system vs. the immune system.
Food Sensitivity Symptoms
- Acid Reflux
- Brain fog
- Bloated Stomach
- Dry Skin
- Fatigue & Sluggishness
- Itchy Skin
- Mild-to-Moderate joint pain
- Mood Swings
- Mild insomnia or trouble sleeping
Much like the Big 8 Food Allergies, food sensitivities has its own group of usual suspects, and we bet you could name the majority of them off the top of your head!
Most Common Types Of Food Sensitivities
Not only is this bad boy a major allergen, but even for those that aren’t allergic to dairy, dairy can be a massive inconvenience to say the least.
Dairy is easily the #1 food sensitivity in the world, and it’s really not hard to see why. Humans are not cows. Cow milk was made for cows that have the ability to process the milk differently, and more efficiently than us.
We drink it anyway, and many suffer because of it.
There is plenty of scientific literature out there supporting the notion that people simply shouldn’t be drinking cow’s milk (contrary to what the National Dairy Council would have you believe!) and there are other sources, some would say “conclusive” that show medical research disproves this theory (see: PMC report on milk)
Whether cow’s milk is healthy for human consumption is clearly up for debate and well outside the scope of this article, so we’ll leave that research up to you if you’re on the fence.
However, we will say this. Those who are suffering from dairy allergies, sensitivities and intolerance aren’t reading this article to see if they should drink milk! Chances are they can’t.
Look for a future article where we’ll discuss lactose sensitivities and intolerance more in-depth, as well as show some alternatives such as goat milk, soy milk, rice milk & almond milk that can open up your options if you’re sensitive to lactose.
What is gluten?
This was a common question only a few years ago. Now, it’s widely known that gluten can cause a whole range of dietary issues for many people. And we’re not even talking about the difference between GMO & Non-GMO!
For most with a gluten allergy reactions are typically mild, and they range from bloating to gastrointestinal distress.
However, those with Celiac’s Disease aren’t so lucky.
Those suffering from Celiac’s have an immune system that believes it’s under attack (similar to an allergy) and in turn, the immune system starts attacking the lower intestines.
As you can imagine, this is definitely not a good thing! You never want to be in a scenario where your body is attacking itself. This is a common response for most autoimmune diseases, of which Celiac’s disease is one of them.
Keep in mind, Celiac’s is an autoimmune disease, it is NOT a wheat allergy.
Even though a wheat allergy may seem similar, since the immune system is reacting (remember IgE?) that’s not how Celiac’s works, and while it’s slightly outside the scope of this article – just understand that Celiac’s isn’t an immediate allergic reaction, it’s the immune systems completely inability to handle gluten.
Any Celiac or non-Celiac related food sensitivity can be treated in only one way; a gluten-free diet.
We already know that eggs can be a definite allergy, but did you know that millions of people are sensitive to them as well?
Eggs can be a terribly difficult food to avoid because they are used as an ingredient in thousands of dishes, and many categories of foods.
From breads to cakes to binding agents in cream-based dishes, eggs are seemingly everywhere!
What’s worse? There are actually 2 different components to an egg that may carry a reaction. This means that you could be sensitive to the yolk, the albumen (egg whites) or both!
It’s commonly known that the albumen, or egg white, is the most common intolerance of an egg, with the majority of egg-intolerant people having no reaction to the yolks.
If this is you then your egg-restrictive food world may open up a little as egg yolks can be used without albumen in many types of foods and creamy dishes, however, you have to be certain that egg whites or egg protein (often made from albumen) is not included, and that can be tricky as it’s not always possible to separate an egg yolk from an egg white with a 100% success rate.
There are more companies every year dedicated to bringing egg-free products into the marketplace. In fact, the Vegan industry is helping to lead this charge as eggs are not included in a vegan diet.
If there’s a particular dish you want, such as bread, cakes or pancakes, chances are high that there is an egg-free vegan alternative available!
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a widely used flavoring additive that is widely believed to cause “allergic” reactions. However, more studies are showing that MSG, even in large doses, only creates symptoms of an allergy and does not actually trigger IgE.
So, while there may not be an allergy to MSG, there are most certainly sensitivities to it.
Common Sensitivities Related To MSG
- Tingling Skin
- Heart Palpitations
- Flushed Skin
These symptoms can feel very serious to some people and even if the FDA has found that MSG is “generally safe”, MSG should be avoided in those that do not wish to exhibit these symptoms when ingesting MSG.
To us it’s a no-brainer. If your body does not tolerate MSG, steer clear of it. It’s a known irritant for many people and if that applies to you, it’s best to just omit MSG as a whole and avoid the foods that contain it.
As no tests are available to test for MSG sensitivity, and it’s not a known allergy, the general advice is to stop eating foods that contain MSG if it causes symptoms, but to know that it hasn’t been shown to cause allergic reactions.