The Scam of Food

Intolerance Tests

By Nick Morgan

It was 11 years ago that Barrie Wingrove, then 45, developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The nausea, bloating and constant need to go to the toilet made her life a misery. Her GP said her symptoms were caused by stress, but Barrie was convinced there was more to it than that.

A colleague suggested she visit a kinesiologist, who performed a test to examine the reactions of her muscles to different foods and to her surprise she was given a long list of things to which she was "intolerant". These weren't limited to foods either, but included washing powder, deodorant and even tap water. She was also told she'd need more tests.

Barrie found her new diet very restrictive. It stopped her going out to restaurants and if she visited friends' houses she'd have to take a packed lunch. And there were always more tests at £35 at time. After one a month for a year, Barrie just couldn't afford it any more and stopped.

Barrie next tried herbal treatments but they just irritated her gut. Then she heard about hair testing. She mailed off a sample of her hair for analysis and received another list of foods to avoid. She was also prescribed sugary ball-bearings to suck, at a cost of £25 for a week's supply. When that was finished she was asked to send another piece of hair for testing and was told she'd need further treatments.

After all the tests and treatments Barrie was £725 poorer and her IBS was worse than ever so much so that she had to give up work. She despaired that she'd ever feel normal again.

Food intolerance is regularly linked with IBS, asthma, eczema, migraines, arthritis and general continuous poor health. Most conventional medical practitioners, however, are skeptical about food intolerance. It's a hard illness to pin down as the symptoms are delayed by up to 48 hours after the food is eaten. It's often called an allergy but the two are quite different: a true allergic reaction is normally instant and can be life threatening. Most significant, however, is that there is no easy way to diagnose a food intolerance.

Nevertheless, it has become a fashionable illness. In the last three years, York Laboratories, offer a blood test to identify food intolerance, have seen the number of people wanting to be tested double from 8,000 to 16,000 a year. Since mainstream medicine is reluctant to get involved, the alternative health lobby has been quick to fill the void. There are dozens of different tests, but are they accurate? And could they be harmful? Using myself as a guinea pig, I decide to find out.

Test 1. Applied Kinesiology

This technique was popularised by an American chiropractor George J. Goodheart Jr in 1964. It's based on the theory that intolerance to certain foods can directly interfere with strength in the muscles. The suspect food is placed on or near the patient's body and the practitioner moves the patient's limbs, applying pressure to gauge whether muscle strength has been affected.

My first attempt to get a kinesiological analysis does not go well. I phone London's Hale clinic, an alternative health haunt popular with celebrities, and am connected to a "health adviser" (who turns out to have no formal medical training). She recommends kinesiologist Ross McCullock. Ross prods, pokes and leans on me for half an hour before telling me I have "frail blood cells" that would have to be strengthened with some herbal pills. Total cost for the session and pills is £87, but Ross never mentions food intolerance, the reason I came. Apparently it hasn't come up, but might do in future sessions, I'll need at least five.

I decide to try another kinesiologist. Bob Murphy advertises himself as operating from "Brighton Natural Clinic". This turns out to be a spare room in his house. I tell Bob I am suffering from fatigue and we talk briefly about diet and bowel movements. Then the examination starts. He presses hard against my shoulders and ribs, which he says will stimulate the lymph glands. (Actually it won't, as I later find out from Dr John Mansfield, Medical Director of the Burghwood Clinic, a long-established allergy clinic in Surrey. ) Then he consults a spiralbound manual called Kinesiology for Balanced Health. "Sometimes I forget where all the pressure points and meridians are," he explains.

Bob gets me to hold a food against my jawbone with one hand while he presses down on my arm. Sugar, tomatoes, aubergines and potato all give a "squidgy" reaction which, Bob explains, indicate I am intolerant. He suggests I take a daily multivitamin. "Come back in two weeks if you have a good result, a bad result, or no result at all," he says. I think Bob wants me to come back. At £25 a session, I'm not surprised.

Sadly kinesiology has limited credibility. "There is no scientific basis for kinesiology," says Catherine Collins, Chief Dietician at St George's Hospital in Tooting, south London. "The tests are neither accurate nor repeatable. I've seen patients who have been put on dangerously restrictive diets by kinesiologists. There are a lot of unwell people being ripped off out there."

Test 2. Vega Machine

The Vega test looks much more scientific: it uses machines. Developed in Germany 60 years ago by Dr Helmut Schimmel , it is based on the idea that, since your body's communication system is electromagnetic, any dysfunction can be detected by measuring abnormalities in electrical resistance.

Healthzone is a clinic-cum-health food shop in Wimbledon, south London, and it is here that I am confronted by Hilary Haznes and her Vega machine. It's the size of a small microwave with two needle displays on the front.

Hilary places a cylindrical piece of silver metal in my right hand. My left is placed on a towel. What looks like a thick silver crayon is then pressed against the first joint on my left index finger. The needle whizzes and whistles, indicating: wheat bad, milk bad, rice OK, cheese bad, grapefruit fine.

In total, I am intolerant to cow's milk, butter, cheese, prawns, mussels, peaches, lemons, white cabbage, onions, wheat bran/flour glutamate, coffee, red wine and chocolate, none of which was on Bob Murphy's list. Hilary does ask me about my diet. Do I snack on the move or eat proper meals? How much exercise do I get? It all seems quite sensible. Then comes the scary news. "The machine shows you have parasites." Parasites? I ask what sort of parasites but Hilary says she doesn't normally go into detail because it freaks out the patient.

Hilary explains that the parasites are causing the food intolerance in a way that I can't quite follow. She adds that I am vitamin and mineral-deficient. "But," she says, "as parasites love vitamins there's no point in taking supplements." She gives me something that will oxygenate my blood, parasites hate that, apparently and herbal pills which will do them in.

I ask what would happen if I went to my GP and had a stool test. She tells me that the parasites I have would most likely not appear on a conventional stool test only her Vega machine can spot them.

I'm charged £84 for the session, herbal parasite killer and a liquid to oxygenate my cells.

Catherine Collins is not impressed. "There's no way that passing a weak electrical current though someone can detect anything, let alone parasites. And telling someone they have parasites then advising them not to see a GP is extremely foolish."

Test 3. Blood Analysis

One of the best known methods for testing food intolerance is through a blood test. There are two main types: the Enzyme-Linked Immuno-Sorbent Assay test (ELISA) and the Antigen Leucocyte Cellular Antibody Test (ALCAT).

The ALCAT test monitors the reaction of the white blood cells and platelets when exposed to a suspect food. To give it a try I go to Saks health and beauty salon in Kidbrooke, south east London. The air is thick with perm lotion and nail varnish remover. I ask the enthusiastic Vicky why a test of this sort should be given at a beauty salon and she explains it is targeted at fit people who want to get fitter and people who want to lose weight. (Apparently if you cut out the foods to which you're intolerant the pounds just slip away).

Vicky has no formal medical training and has been taught in-house to handle the tests. She asks what the problem is and I explain I'm feeling run down, not 100 per cent. She seems delighted and asks a few questions about fitness, diet and sleep. She also explains that the test is expensive, £250, but the clinic gets very little of the money. Most goes to the labs and they also have to hire a nurse to take a sample. On cue the nurse turns up and fills two small tubes with my blood.

A week later I return for the results. Vicky is enthusiastic again. I have reacted to 23 foods, which I'll have to avoid for two months then gradually reintroduce. These include oats, white potatoes, oregano and (joy) broccoli. I am given a computerised weekly diet plan and told that I can return for a further free consultation with Vicky. If I want to see a qualified nutritionist that will cost extra.

With this test I feel that I had been well informed and given a diet I can stick to. Have I at last found a trustworthy medical diagnosis? Dr John Hunter, consultant physician at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, and co-author of The New Allergy Diet (Vermilion) is unequivocal: "I know of no validation for the ALCAT test."

So am I really intolerant to these foods? The second blood test, ELISA, is used worldwide in the detection of specific IgG antibody activity in blood samples. York Laboratories offers a postal ELISA test and claim to be "Europe's leading specialist in food intolerance testing". It costs £250 to check for reaction to 113 foods.

After sending off my fee I receive a small kit with a lancet for pricking my skin and a white wand to suck up three or four drops of blood. To check for consistency I complete two tests, one under my own name and the other using a pseudonym.

Both come back saying I have no intolerance at all. Bingo, I think. Here is a test that works. Dr Hunter disabuses me. "IgG in the blood may be made as a response to any foreign antigen, be it a bacterium, protozoan (like an amoeba) or food," he says. "But just because you have an IgG reaction, it doesn't mean you are food intolerant." Dr Mansfield is equally damning. "I've extensively researched blood tests for food sensitivity," he says, "and I've never found one reliable enough to be useful."

"York Labs have had a lot of media flack for handing out long lists that put people on restrictive diets," comments Catherine Collins. "I think because of this they are issuing shorter lists now. This makes the tests less harmful but no better value."

Test 4. Hair Analysis

This test is based around the theory that intolerances can be detected from toxins deposited in the hair. I send two hair samples under different names by post to John Drinkwater, who describes himself as a "Doctor of Allergies" though he has no formal medical qualifications.

The two results are dramatically different. The first says I should avoid 71 items including sugar, chocolate, aspartame, orange, nectarine, white rice, full cream milk and all shellfish. The second shoots up to over 130 items and any similarity with the first looks random.

I had thought I was fit and well, but if I were to believe all the tests I should switch to a diet so strict it would probably jeopardise my health. Moreover, no two tests gave the same results.

"Such tests generally result in a list of foods to avoid, normally including milk, wheat and a few other common foods," observes health writer Linda Gamlin author of The Allergy Bible (Quadrille). "Anyone with a little knowledge of food intolerance could hand out such a list and some people will get better just by chance you'll to hit the jackpot some of the time."

According to the General Medical there is no law to stop someone calling themselves a doctor or a nutritionist. The British Medical Association confirms that it's common practice for someone to call a spare room in their house a clinic if they wish.

Jonathan Brostoff, Professor of Allergy and Environmental Health at King's College and co-author of The Complete Guide to Food Allergy and Intolerance (Bloomsbury), is concerned that some people may be getting tested for food intolerance when they should be going to their GP. "Problems arise if the two per cent of people whose IBS symptoms turn out to be cancer don't see a doctor," he says.

So is there no way of knowing if you are intolerant to a food? According to Professor Brostoff there is only one way to measure what we know as food intolerance: the elimination diet. Dr Hunter agrees. "I get a 60-per-cent success rate by simply putting patients on a basic diet for two weeks.

For the first week millions of bacteria die in the bowel, releasing toxins, so the patient may feel very rough headaches, vomiting and pain. Normally that clears after three or four days, and they can start introducing foods and see which, if any, affects them. It may seem easier to pay somebody to do say a blood test, but there really are no short cuts."

Today Barrie Wingrove sits relaxed in her sitting room with a glass of white wine in her hand and a smile on her face. "I love my life," she says. "It started to change three years ago when I got hold of a video to help people with IBS. The woman featured had symptoms just like mine and she'd had great success on an elimination diet." Barrie asked her GP for an appointment with the NHS doctor mentioned in the video Professor Brostoff.

At the consultation Barrie was simply asked to keep a diary of what she ate and to give each day a score depending on how she felt. "After a month it was suggested I give up sugar and yeast. That sounds simple, but you'd be amazed how many products have yeast in them. It's even used as a flavouring in some crisps." Within four days Barrie felt better. When she then gave up eggs and dairy products she felt a huge difference. "My life was transformed beyond all recognition," she says. A month later she reintroduced sugar and yeast and had no reaction to them.

So dairy foods had been Barrie's problem all along. Something as simple as an elimination diet could have saved her the money she spent on "alternative" tests and treatments and spared her '' years of illness.

Norwich Union: Medical Journalism Awards 2002
Judges’ comments: “Nick’s piece looked at the popular belief that every illness can be put down to an allergy… accessible, extremely entertaining and very well written.”