How to get your food intolerance test in the papers

First, look for a study to come along, on which you can peg a press release. This one might do. It looks at the association between dichlorophenols – chemicals used to chlorinate water – and food allergic sensitisation, ie IgE-mediated food allergy. The study made the news on the 3rd December 2012.

Food allergy triggered by IgE antibodies can be deadly, especially in the case of nuts. It’s the big one, responsible for causing anaphylaxis in susceptible individuals. You’ve heard those tragic stories, haven’t you? They make the news occasionally, typically it’s a teenager involved, often with asthma, a life is lost, and we all feel wretched and helpless. Often food allergy is milder – lips tingling, light wheezing, red rashes – but the key thing is that it is these IgE-triggered sensitivities that the study looked at. The conclusion was that there was an association between the two: excessive use of these water purifying chemicals could be a contributory factor to increasing food allergy.

Food intolerances, as the wise among you will know, are entirely different. They can be caused by enzyme deficiency (as in lactose intolerance), for instance, but other mechanisms are unclear in idiopathic cases, and on the whole we’re talking bowel symptoms, headaches and such like; they generally can be a bit harder to pin down, and the effects less serious. Nothing as dramatic as plunging blood pressure and inability to breathe, you understand. IgE antibodies are in no way involved.

YorkTest is a laboratory offering food intolerance tests based on measurements of IgG antibodies – a class of antibody distinct to IgE. The IgG thing was an interesting, emerging area about a decade ago, and when I first looked into it when researching my book on food intolerance, it seemed to show some promise, and in the book I was mildly optimistic. The theory was that raised IgG antibodies in the blood might indicate a milder form of food-sensitivity reaction – food intolerance, essentially – much in the way raised IgE antibodies in the blood might indicate a more serious food-sensitivity reaction – allergy.

The research YorkTest Laboratories supply in support of IgG testing for food intolerance totals a few papers. The audits in particular are poor and of little value, to my mind.

The good trial – now looking increasingly isolated with the passage of time – is the well-known Whorwell of 2004 published in Gut which concluded that “Food elimination based on IgG antibodies may be effective in reducing IBS symptoms and is worthy of further biomedical research.” But this was just one trial, looking only at irritable bowel. The authors themselves later stated that “they may not be relevant in food intolerance in general” – a comment you’re unlikely to find on the YorkTest site.

Further good studies in support of IgG have not followed in the years since, and brains bigger than mine have concluded that the evidence is insufficient. (See Food Sensitivity Testing page at the top for links to studies and expert opinion.)

Back to Water Purification Chemicals …

On the 5thDecember – two days after the news about food allergy and water purification chemicals – I received a press release from Yorktest’s PRs, CCD, titled “Chlorine in tap water linked to increase in number of people developing food intolerances”. 

The opening lines:

Chlorine in tap water has been linked to the rising number of people developing food allergies and intolerances, a study has revealed.
Researchers found adults with high levels of dichlorophenol – a chemical by-product of chlorine – in their urine, were up to 80 per cent more likely to have a food allergy or intolerance.

The title is plainly inaccurate, and the subsequent lines partly so. The research linked chlorine to food allergy – not intolerance.

The press release continued, abandoning allergy and pressing forward with the self-serving intolerance angle. “Help is at hand from YorkTest,” we were told, whose test can “uncover potential food and drink triggers”.

The aim of a press release, of course, is to get the client publicity and – bingo – six days later, this appeared in the Daily Mirror (readership: 3 million plus). It’s an article alternately about allergies and intolerances, including some sad stories, which mentions several individuals and bodies, including YorkTest – the apparent inspiration for the story via the press release above. Job done, then.

A PR’s job is often a tunnel-vision one: to get publicity for the client. Newspapers and magazines are filled these days with material sourced from or inspired by press releases, and it’s a depressing state of affairs. Read Nick Davies’ devastatingly brilliant Flat Earth News for more.

There are a lot of reasons for this. I know folk get aggravated when writers confuse or conflate or inappropriately mix up allergy, intolerance and coeliac, and there was a time, of course, when a journalist might have researched the material in a press release in greater depth and more critically, and spend more time in general background research. They could afford to. Rates for journalism were good. Now they are poor. To make a living, you’ve got to ‘churn’ articles quickly. Also, health journalists don’t often have medical backgrounds (I don’t). Editors are increasingly under pressure to just get pages filled, and will convey that pressure to the writer. Journos are therefore increasingly vulnerable to being misled by press releases. If you’re pressured and overworked, you cut corners; I know, as I have.

The losers are you, the readers – who don’t get the journalism you deserve, and are subject to being confused about conflicting advice and misinformation appearing in various media.

And another one … 

This blog was going to end hereabouts, but as I write this on Sunday the 20th another email and press release from CCD has just arrived.

It is pegged to Blue Monday – the third Monday of January – a pseudo-mathematical PR-industry fabrication which Ben Goldacre has already demolished with panache, which crops up in the media annually (hugely disappointingly, the British Dietetic Association have got involved with it this year) – and whose whole construct is arguably deeply insulting and unhelpful to those with genuine depression or related illness, as psychologist Dean Burnett has explained so eloquently.

The email (edited extracts):

“Welcome to the most depressing day of the year! Monday 21st January … has a reputation of being the most sullen day … A combination of post-christmas blues, dark evenings and unpaid credit card bills all contribute to making today the most depressed.”

But hold on a minute: this “sullen mood may be due to your diet” I am informed. “Why not use today of all days to find out if food intolerances are making today your most depressing day?” Because, as usual, … help is at hand from YorkTest …” even though there’s no study linking depression and IgG antibodies on their science page, and none that I know of in the literature.

Whether this ends up in some form in the media remains to be seen (do let me know if you see anything). Meanwhile, I’ll try to find some comfort in the fact that, while my mood may indeed be sullen right now, I do not need one of YorkTest’s £299 Food&DrinkScan Programmes to know that it’s nothing to do with food intolerance.

1 Comment

  1. Micki

    I hooted at this, Alex, as an ex-PR! Don't forget the poor brow-beaten PRs whose good sense and advice is often overruled by clients who demand a press release based on a trending media story. Been there, worn that T-shirt! You do have to sell your soul a bit and write stuff you would never dream of as a journo.


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