A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 5, 2018

Are DNA Testing Companies Mostly Trying To Sell You Other Stuff?

Using personal genetic data - which customers paid to have analyzed - to generate information targeted at selling cosmetics and other lifestyle products..JL

Emily Mullin reports in MIT Technology Review:

New tests claim to make personalized recommendations—from what skin-care products you should use to what kind of diet is best. But many of these tests amount to a way to hawk a product. The science underpinning them is flimsy 'genetic astrology,' if it exists at all. (And) these tests come with a survey that asks about your habits, health, and personal information. What’s marketed as a DNA test may be an analysis of your answers they can sell. Consumers should think about relinquish(ing) the rights to their genetic data for  supposedly “personalized” recommendations.
The consumer genetics market is booming. In 2017, the number of people who took direct-to-consumer ancestry tests more than doubled, reaching over 12 million customers.
The craze is quickly expanding beyond ancestry, too. A wave of new tests claim to make all sorts of personalized lifestyle recommendations—from what skin-care products you should use to what kind of diet is best for you. But buyer beware: in many cases these tests amount to little more than a way to hawk a product. The science underpinning them is often flimsy, if it exists at all.
That’s why many of these tests come with a survey or questionnaire that asks about your habits, health, and other personal information. What’s marketed as a DNA test may mostly be an analysis of your answers—the DNA may not factor in that much at all.
Another red flag is a result that recommends other products or services. “When someone who is selling you a test says you need this product, you should question their motives,” says James Evans, a physician and geneticist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Beyond those rules of thumb, we’ve noticed a few tests that stand out as particularly spurious. They should be approached with more than a little skepticism.


The pitch: Lean Cuisine, the well-known purveyor of frozen meals, is trying out a new meal-planning service that involves a DNA test. It claims that its “genetic markers help determine your customized nutrient intake,” but the service also includes a survey that asks about your food preferences, allergies, and lifestyle.
The hustle: At $79 for eight weeks (it’s in a trial phase), the program offers recommendations for recipes, dining-out options, and prepared meals (probably from Lean Cuisine).
The science: It also includes an app that allows you to connect with a nutritionist. That’s probably more useful than the DNA analysis: a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that diets based on DNA results didn’t help people lose weight. Other companies, like Nutrigene and LifeDNA, want to sell you vitamin supplements on the basis of a DNA test.


The pitch: Most people already know if their skin is oily, dry, or a combination of the two. How could a DNA test help? That’s what I was wondering after taking SkinGenie’s 10-question quiz, which asked me about my skin type, skin problems, age, and any allergies I might have.
The hustle: To see what skin-care products the company has selected for you, you have to either purchase a DNA test kit through LifeNome, which costs $59, or upload your raw data from 23andMe, Ancestry.com, or another company.
The science: SkinGenie says its report explores skin traits like sun sensitivity and predisposition to acne—things a licensed dermatologist could probably tell you without your genetic information. 


The pitch: Promoted by Helix, a sort of app store for DNA products, this company says it will curate wines for you on the basis of your DNA.
The hustle: You have to get an $80 DNA test done through Helix, and then purchase the Vinome profile for $29.99. Vinome says it uses “10 genetic markers related to smell and taste” to identify eight unique profiles, but it also asks you to take a taste preference survey. The company then wants to sell you wine—individual bottles or a membership program—after you get your results.
The science: Researchers have found that certain people are predisposed to hate the taste of brussels sprouts or cilantro, but your inclination for certain wines is probably a lot more complex.


The pitch: The company makes a mobile app that helps you find a roommate. But it’s piloting a new service that uses a DNA sample and an online personality test to match you to a compatible one.
The hustle: After you submit a spit sample, SpareRoom gives you a report that shows how your genetics influence 14 characteristics, like spontaneity, optimism, stress tolerance, self-awareness, and confidence. The company hasn’t yet set the price it will charge when it rolls out the service in the US and UK.
The science: While studies have found genetic links to mental and personality disorders, experts disagree on how much of our character and temperament is actually influenced by our DNA.
The problem with these tests and their ilk, experts say, is that they amount to genetic astrology. We just don’t know enough about the complex interactions of our genes yet to make these kinds of personalized recommendations.
So why market these services as DNA tests when the DNA analysis itself is shaky at best?
“When a new area of science emerges that’s hot and sexy, it becomes a marketing tool,” says Debra Mathews of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. As she points out, a similar fad popped up during the heyday of stem-cell research: beauty companies started marketing all sorts of “regenerative” skin-care products that claimed to contain stem cells.
Beyond the quick buck, though, many of the companies are also playing a long game. Once they have customers’ data, they can compile it and sell it to researchers. That’s where there’s real money to be made.
Mathews says consumers should really think about whether they’re willing to relinquish the rights to their genetic data for the short-term gratification of supposedly “personalized” recommendations. Her advice before swabbing or spitting: “Read the fine print.”


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