Dangerous scams #762: IntoleranceLab Ltd

Back in February or so, I’d been covering some ground on atopy and allergies etc and came across a company called IntoleranceLab Ltd (Company #11049115). They claimed to perform “Allergen and allergy testing” with nothing more than a few strands of hair. If this sounds like a crock of crap, it’s because it is: there is zero evidence1 2 3 4 5 6 to support this technique’s use in determining potential allergens.

You may ask, why the big deal? What’s the difference? ‘Tis an easy one. Just take a look at this review:

A review of IntoleranceLab: customer complains that the lab did not detect their husband's shellfish allergy. Lab replies that it is not an allergy test.

IntoleranceLab review 15 September, 2020 permalink (Web Archive)

Interesting! That’s not what their site says. From their page at intolerancelab.co.uk/allergy (note ‘allergy’ in the URL):

IntoleranceLab 'Allergy Testing' information including statement that they will 'pinpoint' an 'allergy or intolerance'.

IntoleranceLab Allergy Testing page (retrieved October 25, 2020) permalink (Web Archive)

They go on…

IntoleranceLab's explanation of what their scam test results will show, including dietary allergies.

IntoleranceLab Allergy Testing page (retrieved October 25, 2020) permalink (Web Archive)

Anyway, I reported them to the Advertising Standards Agency (“the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media”) and didn’t think much more of it until a friend recently forwarded me a screenshot of an advert for IntoleranceLab that popped up while they were using Instagram:

Advert displayed on Instagram for IntoleranceLab, forwarded to me via WhatsApp - the advert shows a person with a caption 'mail a small hair sample'

Advert for IntoleranceLab on Instagram (forwarded to me via WhatsApp), 23 October 2020

This prompted me to do a bit of digging and find out what had happened since the report earlier in the year. As it turns out, the ASA posted a message on their website just a month ago – October 15, 2020 – stating that:

“The ASA received a complaint [oh hey! 🙃] raising concerns about the IntoleranceLab website which made a number of claims about their ability to identify food intolerances and allergies. … Despite a number of requests from the Compliance team, IntoleranceLab have failed to amend or remove the problematic claims from their website. We therefore took the decision on 15 October to place them on [the ’non-compliant online advertisers’] section of the ASA website.” permalink (Web Archive)

I mean, it’s as simple as this: the company is offering ‘dietary allergy testing’ using samples of hair and then, in their own literature, is stating that their tests do not diagnose anything and nor can they be used to treat any conditions. On February 18, 2020, IntoleranceLab published a press release via ABNewsWire, a copy of which I have uploaded here (PDF, 34kB). In it, they state:

“It is now high time to say goodbye to bloating, indigestion or toilet trips by finding out if you have any allergy or food intolerance [my emphasis] …

“Once the test is complete, the causes of your acid reflux, IBS or other symptoms will be revealed …

“Remember, if you are suffering any of the below conditions, then you have to go for an intolerance test soon.

“Digestive Issues, Migraines, Hives, Bloating, Joint Pains, Acid Reflux, Fatigue, Indigestion, Stomach Ulcer, Acne, Asthma, Skin Rashes, Constipation, Etc.”

Sorry but that’s just total bollocks. Moreover, a quick look at the differentials for acid reflux7 and IBS8 would tell you that a visit to the GP is really what you want to be doing to rule out anything gnarly: not sticking a lock of your hair in the post to be sold a lie.

As per the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) CG1169 §1.1.18:

NICE Clinical Guidance CG116 unequivocally stating that hair analysis should not be used in the diagnosis of food allergy

NICE Clinical Guidance CG116 permalink (Web Archive)

No company should be offering allergy testing via hair samples. Period.

On 23 October 2020 I emailed South Tyneside Trading Standards (local Trading Standards for Jarrow, where IntoleranceLab is headquartered) to make them aware of this company.

Update November 12, 2020 — South Tyneside Trading Standards got back to me to say:

Unfortunately we are not in a position to discuss the case in detail nor are we able to make any form of statement at this time.

The adverts

As of November 1, 2020, the company has 700+ adverts running across Facebook and Instagram. All of these adverts can be viewed on the Facebook Ads Library. You can also drill into them to see information re demographics, targeting, reach and variations on the same advert.

Below is a screenshot showing just a fraction of the adverts running on Facebook and Instagram in the week leading up to November 2, 2020. For a PDF of all the adverts in one document click here (.pdf, 9.8MB):

A screenshot from the Facebook Ads Library, listing all the adverts that were being paid for by IntoleranceLab Ltd in the week leading up to November 2, 2020.

IntoleranceLab adverts being displayed on the Facebook network (including Instagram, also owned by Facebook), November 2, 2020

The adverts also run across the Google Ads network, this one from just a month ago when I searched for ‘allergy testing’:

A screenshot from a Google Search response, showing an advert from IntoleranceLab. The ad displays text that clearly states they claim to provide allergy testing via hair samples.

IntoleranceLab advert displayed on Google Search via the Google Ads network, October 12, 2020. This ad was reported for violation of AdSense rules re their promotion of ‘allergy testing’.

Similarly, here’s another ad running on the Yahoo! search engine (who even uses Yahoo! any more?); the terms were, again, ‘allergy testing’:

A screenshot from a Yahoo search, showing the advert from IntoleranceLab that displayed when the search terms 'allergy test' were entered. The advert clearly shows that the company claims to offer allergy testing via hair samples.

IntoleranceLab advert displayed on Yahoo! Search, November 11, 2020.

Just to be clear: this company does not provide any form of testing other than “hair allergy testing” and so there is no way that this company can, in fact, provide allergy testing.

I sent Facebook my findings but they have not, as of yet, returned comment.

I’m still in the process of analysing these adverts and will update this post in due course. In the meantime, you can look up all the adverts yourself on the Facebook Ads Library, available at ads.facebook.com, or put the search terms into a browser yourself and see what comes up.

The reviews

I’m writing a special section here just on the reviews, because they deserve their own mention. This company prides itself on its ‘Five Star Ratings’ on TrustPilot (which is in fact fake - I’ve emailed TrustPilot to let them know):

A screenshot from the IntoleranceLab website, showing a 'doctored' TrustPilot five-star rating for the site.

Fake ‘FIVE STAR REVIEWS’ graphic on IntoleranceLab website

However, not is all as it seems: not only do these folks not have five stars on TrustPilot, it turns out they appear to solicit positive reviews from customers:

A review of IntoleranceLab: customer explains how the company were only interested in soliciting feedback for TrustPilot if the reviews were positive.

IntoleranceLab review 15 March, 2020 permalink (archive.today)

So it sounded like the company is soliciting reviews, possibly for vouchers, possibly for £££; In the off-chance, I decided to send them a little email:

The email I originally sent to IntoleranceLab, posing as a member of the public that had given the company a favourable review. I expressed my annoyance that I had not, as of yet, received the vouchers that had been promised me for providing this review.

I didn’t really think much more of it until a couple of days later, when I get a ‘ping’ on my phone and see this:

The response I got from IntoleranceLab, telling me there was a bit of a backlog with the vouchers and asking for me to hang tight.

Really? So wait, they actually … they actually bought that? Five minutes later I get another ‘ping’:

A screenshot of an email I received directly from Amazon, containing a £20 gift token that had been sent by IntoleranceLab.


Well then, thank you very much - unfortunately I can’t cash in on it (because that would be unethical), but this at least anecdotally shows that the company is compensating people for giving positive feedback (Hello, ASA!) … you couldn’t make it up.

Anyway, my next steps are to find out a bit more about the company structure, information about who’s supporting them, how they’re targeting users etc.: always happy for a hand with any sleuthing …

  1. NIAID-Sponsored Expert Panel, et al. “Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of food allergy in the United States: Report of the NIAID-sponsored expert panel”. J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 126. 6 SUPPL.(2010): S1–58. Available at URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241964/ (retrieved October 25, 2020) ↩︎

  2. Sethi, T. J. et al. “How Reliable Are Commercial Allergy Tests?”. Lancet 329. 8524(1987): 92–94. Available at URL: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2879187/ (retrieved October 25, 2020) ↩︎

  3. Sicherer, Scott H. et al. “Allergy testing in childhood: Using allergen-specific IgE tests”. Pediatrics 129. 1(2012): 193–197. Available at URL: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-2382 (retrieved October 25, 2020) ↩︎

  4. Bernstein, I. Leonard et al. “Allergy diagnostic testing: An updated practice parameter”. Ann. Allergy, Asthma Immunol. 100. 3 SUPPL. 3(2008). Available at URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/S1081-1206(10)60305-5 (retrieved October 25, 2020) ↩︎

  5. Barrett, Stephen. “Commercial Hair Analysis: Science or Scam?”. JAMA J. Am. Med. Assoc. 254. 8(1985): 1041–1045. Available at URL: https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1985.03360080053028 (retrieved October 25, 2020) ↩︎

  6. Rivlin, Richard S.. “Misuse of hair analysis for nutritional assessment”. Am. J. Med. 75. 3(1983): 489–493. ↩︎

  7. Zuckerman, Marc J. et al. “Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease”. BMJ Best Practice (2019) ↩︎

  8. Snyder, Ned. “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”. BMJ Best Practice (2019). ↩︎

  9. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. “Food allergy in under 19s: assessment and diagnosis [NICE Guideline No. CG116]” (2011). Available at URL: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg116 ↩︎