On March 15, Mario Lopez Instagrammed himself with a colorful box called the Pinnertest.
“If you feel tired, maybe a little depressed been gaining some weight... Maybe you have a food intolerance,” the television host and former Saved By The Bell actor told his more than 937,000 followers. “Healthy known foods can make you sick. Good way to know is @Pinnertestusa, check it out. #ad.”
Another endorsement came last year from actress Lindsay Lohan, who has 6.1 million followers on the social network and wrote (in a since-deleted post) that “even ‘healthy’ vegetables can cause weight gain and diseases which is something to be conscious of.” Real Housewives of New York City star Ramona Singer endorsed the Pinnertest to her 372,000 followers: “I’ve been having some issues with my energy levels lately and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Pinnertest relies on social media to aggressively market this $490 blood test, claiming that it can pinpoint “food intolerances.” Unlike a food allergy, which is an immune system reaction, a food intolerance consists of uncomfortable digestive reactions to foods that your body can’t break down.
The test claims to tell if you have intolerances to 200 food items, and advises customers to remove the offending ingredients from their diets. The California company’s two Instagram accounts have a combined 106,000 followers, and it has sold close to 1 million tests, according to Patricia Costa, its director of marketing and social strategy.
Scientists, however, say that many of the company’s claims are highly unlikely or make no sense.
The test screens for certain proteins in the blood that are supposedly telltale signs of food intolerances. But that’s not backed up by rigorous research, experts say. Not only that, but there’s no evidence that those biomarkers cause gut problems or any other symptoms — a claim that Pinnertest promotes through celebrity endorsements and its own marketing materials. Allergist associations around the world say the kinds of biomarkers analyzed by the test do not have any proven link to illness. Even some scientists whose studies are listed on the company’s website said their research is unrelated to food intolerance and cited out of context.
“I don’t know on which basis these people make the claim that they have something to identify people with gluten intolerance,” Alessio Fasano, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Harvard Medical School, told BuzzFeed News. He's very familiar with all of the important clinical trials on gluten sensitivity, he added, and none of them have come close to producing such a test. “There's nothing concluded so far.”
Even experts like Fasano don’t have access to a fast, reliable test for food intolerance: It doesn’t exist, even for common offenders like gluten. That may heighten the appeal of the Pinnertest among people who are increasingly worried about their bodily reactions to gluten, lactose, and other food components.
Doctors usually screen for food intolerance with a time-consuming process of trial and error, by having patients stop eating foods difficult for the intestine to break down and seeing if their symptoms improve, said William Chey, a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan and a member of the American College of Gastroenterology’s board of trustees.
Cutting out certain foods can be an unnecessary inconvenience and, taken to an extreme, dangerously unhealthy, doctors say.
While the test is a “really interesting idea,” Chey said, “the science hasn’t caught up to make me feel confident it’s absolutely true.”
After being sold in Europe and then Asia for more than three decades, the Pinnertest became available in the US three years ago, according to Costa. It is a subsidiary and product of Arrayit, a Silicon Valley life-sciences equipment company, and is not covered by insurance.
With equipment in the mail-home kit, customers prick their fingers and send back a few blood drops. Within 7 to 10 days, they receive an email report with a list of the foods — up to 200, from grains to seafood to legumes — to which they’re supposedly intolerant.
The company says it looks for heightened levels of certain molecules made by the immune system, called antibodies, to help protect the body from foreign substances. It also claims to be able to tell whether an intolerance is temporary or permanent, and only report the latter. When the company finds a customer is intolerant to certain kinds of food, it recommends that “you should try to eliminate them completely from your diet.”
“We know, from our research, that the majority of patients who alter their diet in accordance with their test results show a significant improvement in their symptom(s) within three weeks,” the Pinnertest report tells customers.
Costa, the company’s rep, provided her own test results to BuzzFeed News as a typical example. It found that she was intolerant to tomatoes, peaches, pineapples, onions, and turkey. She said she’s had much less acne and indigestion since cutting out these foods, although it’s sometimes hard.
“You want to have a pina colada in the Caribbean, and I had a pina colada, which was not good for my face,” she said. “You want to be able to have these things. I’m human and I do on occasion, but then I suffer heartburn or an acne breakout.”
When asked about the science behind the Pinnertest, the company referred BuzzFeed News to Ferit Erdem, a consultant who has an industrial engineering PhD from Istanbul Technical University. He explained that food intolerance occurs when undigested proteins enter the blood and trigger a reaction.
“The blood thinks there’s a virus or bacteria and starts attacking — that’s a food intolerance,” he said.
That’s false, according to gastroenterologists and allergy specialists. A food intolerance reaction, medical experts explain, is a digestion problem caused by factors such as a lack of enzymes and sensitivity to food additives. When blood contains the antibodies that the Pinnertest is looking for, it simply means that someone has eaten a food item. Drinking a lot of milk, for example, might increase levels of antibodies to milk, but there isn’t evidence to show what a “normal” level is to begin with, scientists say.
These antibodies, at any level, aren’t necessarily the cause of fatigue, indigestion, or any other symptoms. (In contrast, allergic reactions are an immune response and caused by a different class of antibodies that react to allergens like plants and animals.)
“The vast majority of the immune responses mounted by our immune system do not result in symptoms,” Fasano said.
So cutting out the foods recommended by the Pinnertest won’t necessarily make any symptoms go away. “They’re making a big leap of faith between finding the antibodies, and actually meaning that that’s going to translate to getting better by excluding certain foods from the diet,” said Chey, who is helping another company design a study for a similar test.
Erdem, the Pinnertest scientific consultant, initially told BuzzFeed News that the company is careful to not overstate the significance of its findings. “It’s scientifically not possible to make a connection between intolerance and symptoms,” he said.
But the company’s website does draw these connections.
“Do you have discomfort and bloating after some meals?” the website asks. “Do you have unexplained rashes, acne, or eczema? Do you have painful joints from time to time?” Enough yeses mean “you might have a Food Intolerance.” It adds, “Thanks to advanced biotechnology, there is now a very precise method to know which foods you are intolerant to.”
“I haven’t looked at the website recently, but they’re not supposed to do something like that,” Erdem said. “I didn’t know that they updated it, I’m sorry about this.”
Then he paused, looked at the website, and read it out loud.
“You might have a food intolerance,” he said, emphasizing “might.” “We cannot say this is the cause of food intolerance, but you might have a food intolerance.” He added that the test is “not a diagnostic tool, it’s just health advice.”
The company’s website also lists nearly 300 studies, described as “medical studies about food intolerance and Pinnertest.” But some of those studies’ authors don’t agree.
Fasano of Harvard was surprised to learn from BuzzFeed News that he has two papers listed, under the headings “food intolerance and autoimmune disease” and “food intolerance and gastrointestinal disorders.” Both studies have “nothing to do with food intolerance,” he said.
Hugh Sampson had a similar reaction after hearing that a 2002 study of his in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology was included in both the “food intolerance and gastrointestinal disorders” and “food intolerance and skin disorders” sections.
“I hope people would read it, because it has nothing to do with intolerance,” said Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
Asked how Pinnertest selected studies to include, Erdem said that some of the papers were meant as general information for medical professionals, even if they weren’t directly related to food intolerance.
“I haven’t checked recently. This web page hasn’t evolved in 15 years. Maybe there’s some old studies there,” he said. “That page is very dead.”