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Food Sensitivities: What's the Connection to Our DNA

Food Sensitivities: What's the Connection to Our DNA

Tens of thousands of Americans struggle with food sensitivities every day. A genetic food sensitivity is something that is often lumped in with food allergies but is really a completely different experience. 


While allergies have been researched extensively, food sensitivities are less understood, which has left people to do research and experiment with their diet on their own until they can determine the source of their discomfort. 

Fortunately, now there are food sensitivity tests available, which can help offer some insight into the genetic basis behind your food sensitivities. This can help the 15-20% of Americans who suffer from food sensitivities and intolerances every day.


Today, we’ll connect the dots between food sensitivities and food allergies and explain what deeper connections may exist within our DNA.

Genetic Food Sensitivity vs Allergies

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There are a few different ways that our bodies can respond negatively to certain foods.  


The most severe reaction is an allergy. If we’re allergic to a certain food, it means that any taste or even smell of this food triggers an immediate immune system reaction. This reaction could affect multiple organs, and some people have responses that are so severe that they can cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition with symptoms that include:

  • Constriction of the airway
  • Swollen throat
  • Dizziness
  • Shock
  • Rapid pulse

If anaphylaxis is left untreated, it could quickly lead to a coma or death.

Food Sensitivities

In contrast, food sensitivities typically involve a milder immune response, with symptoms occurring either soon after ingestion or even a few days later. 

Food sensitivities are generally not life-threatening. Instead, they usually cause symptoms that range from headaches to digestive upset and diarrhea. Since the symptoms can be delayed for up to several days after consumption of the trigger food, it’s often difficult to identify which foods are problematic. 


Food Intolerances

A food intolerance may cause similar symptoms to a food sensitivity, but the cause is different. Instead of being an immune response, a food intolerance is caused by the lack of an enzyme needed to digest the food. This typically causes digestive symptoms like stomach aches, diarrhea, and nausea.


A common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which is caused by low quantities of the hormone lactase, which is needed to break down lactose in the body.   

How Genetic Food Sensitivities Connect to Our DNA

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There have been many studies conducted that suggest that both environmental factors and genetics play a significant role in the development of food allergies. Since allergies and food sensitivities trigger a similar immune response, there has been great research done on tests that people can take at home to help them identify the connection between their DNA and their genetic food sensitivities.


These tests typically use either a blood draw or cheek swab to provide the DNA, which is then tested to identify genetic variants that could be responsible for various food sensitivities and intolerances.

Learn more about genetics in our crash course article, Genetics 101

Are Food Sensitivity Tests Accurate?

While it’s difficult to identify the cause of sensitivities and intolerances with 100% certainty, these food sensitivity tests offer valuable information that would be difficult to learn otherwise. 

In the past, dieticians and doctors have recommended time-consuming elimination diets, which involve eliminating one type of food at a time to help a person match their symptoms to triggers. This takes time and is not always that accurate. In contrast, a food sensitivity test can help a person make more accurate decisions based on their unique DNA.


Looking to try out a DNA test to help you identify food sensitivities? Check out our line of DNA tests, which can give you more information on potential food sensitivities including gluten, alcohol, caffeine, and more.  

Updated on
Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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