The process of decoding your genetic makeup is not as scary as it might sound. It’s actually quite easy, and relatively inexpensive. You can even do it for free.
Perhaps the best-known services are 23andMe.com and Ancestry.com. 23andMe provides both ancestry and health data, while Ancestry only provides ancestry information.
For nutrition-specific test, a quick search of “nutrition genetics testing” will return a seemingly never-ending list of possibilities.
If you’re on a budget, the University of Michigan will test your genetics for free at GenesForGood.com. The catch is that you have to fill out several surveys and processing may be slower than commercial vendors. What’s in it for them? They are building a large database to link certain genetic variants with health status. It’s good for your wallet and science.
For any of these options, you will receive a kit in the mail. Most have a tube in which you send a saliva sample or a cotton swab to collect cheek cells. Both are painless.
All these companies do the same thing with your sample. They extract DNA and perform genotyping, that is, they determine what type of gene variant you have at a given location on your DNA.
Scientists love to make up long names for simple concepts. We came up with “single nucleotide polymorphism” to describe any location of the genome where a genetic variant is found. “SNP” is the shorthand for single nucleotide polymorphism.
Anyhow, the testing company genotypes a large number of these SNPs (~500,000) to get a good idea of your unique genetic makeup.
Well, some of the genetic variants have clear interpretations that can, for example, indicate where your ancestors originated or whether you are likely to go bald.
Other genetic variants are well-known risk factors for diseases like Alzheimer’s or cardiovascular disease.
Some variants have very little evidence associating them with health.
Genetic testing companies vary in their willingness to relate our genetic variants with our health. Due to FDA regulations, 23andMe has removed much of information they used to provide. Now, the health information they provide is quite limited, but thought to be of very high quality.
Some genetic testing companies will stretch the science much thinner, like too thin to actually call it science. They might suggest that a genetic variant means you should eat green grapes, not red grapes. Oh, and only in the morning.
It’s important to remember that any single gene tells us very little about you. Moreover, genes are only part of the equation when it comes to health, with environment also being very important.
Finally, a secret behind all these genetic testing companies… for the most part, they are all running the same genetic tests. It doesn’t matter which of the companies you select. Most are having the same third-party companies do the actual testing anyhow.
The difference between companies is the analysis provided. Some companies are credible, others do more story-telling than science.
You can actually take the raw data that the company provides and do your own analysis on a ton of health-related genetic variants. I’ll go through each of the well-studied gene variants, tell you what we know about them, and how confident we are about that knowledge. More on that to come.
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If you missed part 1, read it here.