Constable: Cornucopia of menu options can serve up issues with food intolerance
A vegan, a person with celiac disease and a kid with a peanut allergy walk into a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a lactose-intolerant couple. That scenario seems as if it's waiting for a punchline, but it really just gives an insight into some of the food issues that could surface during the coming holiday get-togethers.
"That's where we help people with this food intolerance testing," says Raj Virdi, a partner in the Vernon Hills franchise of Any Lab Test Now, a walk-in lab that can test blood for dietary agitations caused by foods ranging from acorn squash to yams. Food intolerance is different from a food allergy.
On Jan. 1, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act will add sesame to the major food allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, wheat, shellfish and soybeans) that the law requires to be listed on food labels. Allergic reactions are caused when a body's immune system reacts to certain proteins in food. They can quickly result in problems ranging from hives and swollen lips to shock and fatal respiratory issues.
Intolerance to food might just cause diarrhea, cramping, bloating or other uncomfortable reactions. Some individuals may have hypersensitivity reactions, including hives or itching, to food additives such as FD&C Yellow No. 5 or a medicinal herb such as St. John's wort. Any Lab Test Now can test for 250 food ingredients, 50 herbs, 30 colorings and preservatives, and other additives that can cause those issues.
"Allergies people understand. Intolerance, they don't," Virdi says. "Restaurants will ask if you have a food allergy, but nobody asks if you are intolerant to any foods."
That issue is personal for phlebotomist Leticia Silvia, who serves as a medical tech and medical assistant at Any Lab Test Now. Her 12-year-old daughter, Luna Matute, has an intolerance to certain foods.
"Whenever she eats foods with milk or egg whites, she doesn't feel good," Silvia says.
The Food and Drug Administration has identified more than 160 foods that cause issues in sensitive individuals. Research suggests that testing identifies food items that cause a release of inflammatory markers and activation of innate immune cells. People can use their test results to craft diets that avoid foods that cause those issues.
But the list is expansive.
"You'd be surprised," says Virdi, who lives in Buffalo Grove. "Some people are intolerant to chicken or avocados."
Allowing people to get their own blood tests on demand without any input from doctors bothers some critics, and it raises concerns that patients will use resources on unnecessary testing. Some fear that patients won't fully understand the test results without a doctor's interpretation.
The Chicago-based American Society for Clinical Pathology issued a policy statement advising people who use "direct access testing" to share the results with their physicians.
But Virdi says his franchise gives people the freedom to take control of their health care, adds another level of privacy, and can be more convenient and cheaper than going through the red tape of copays, insurance and hospital visits. Getting a routine test, such as the one for cholesterol levels, can be done whenever a patient wants to drop in.
The Vernon Hills lab and another franchise in Villa Park also do paternity tests, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol tests, and a litany of general health tests. They do testing for COVID-19 and the COVID antibodies, which made them busy this summer when Lollapalooza required every guest to bring a card proving vaccination or produce proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Those tests also are in demand now.
"It's the holidays, and everybody is traveling," says Kaysen Pyle, the office manager in the Vernon Hills lab, which gives people the documentation often needed to travel. "We get so many calls."
Food sensitivity can be difficult to spot without a test, says Virdi, who grew up in India and came to the United States to get his MBA at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"Most of the time, people aren't able to pinpoint why they are getting sick or they are bloating," Virdi says. "When you're intolerant, you could eat food in small quantities and nothing will happen."
Other times, an item that causes sensitivity might not be obvious. A homemade cookie could have cream cheese, a potato dish might contain dill, or a condiment might be made with anchovies. About 10% of people have hypersensitive reactions to alcoholic beverages, particularly red wine, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Over-the-counter supplements such as acai berry, elderberry, wheatgrass or glucosamine also can trigger reactions. "All these herbs have medicinal values," Virdi says.
Blood tests for food insensitivity start at $269, depending on the number of foods that will be tested.
People who test positive for certain sensitivities are given a laminated Food Intolerance Card listing every food item that causes problems. It reads, "Love your grub, but I can't eat," with spaces to list troublesome foods.
If you've never been a fan of your Aunt Edna's ambrosia salad, perhaps a test can find something among all those fruits, cream and marshmallows to give you a written pass.