The search for your true self is a spiritual journey that can take a lifetime according to the flood of self-help books available on the topic of identity.
If you prefer a lighter view, Kurt Vonnegut said that ‘we are what we pretend to be,’ which is much easier than spending a lifetime on self-reflection.
But what is even easier than pretending to be someone or something? Spitting in a tube. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.
You see, over the last few years a huge number of companies have emerged offering to unlock the secrets of your DNA and give you answers to questions such as ‘where did I come from?’ ‘do I belong here?’ and ‘am I more likely to get bunions?’
23andMe is a DNA ancestry company that can answer all of the above questions plus more in exchange for a tube of your saliva and a hundred-odd bucks.
But is it worth it? Let’s take a look.
How Does it Work?
It all starts with a tube.
After ordering a kit, you will be sent a saliva collection kit. This consists of a tube, a funnel lid, a normal cap, a biohazard bag, and pre-paid postage.
All you need to do is fill the tube about half full with saliva (there is a fill line to guide you), and then put the funnel lid on.
I should mention that you can’t eat or drink anything in the 30 minutes before you give your spit sample. I suppose it contaminates the sample. It would be pretty wild to discover that you have a mushroom as a great grandparent though!
Once you put the funnel lid on you need to squeeze the top to release the stabilizing liquid into your sample. This stops it from degrading during postage.
After the funnel top, you simply put the normal cap on tightly and use the app to scan the barcode on the side of the tube. Scanning the barcode allows the app to link this particular sample with your account.
Finally, place it in the biohazard bag and then put that bag inside the prepaid postage box and send it off!
Once the sample arrives at their US-based labs, 23andMe uses genotyping to identify variants in your DNA. Genotyping essentially zooms in on your DNA in particular places that are known to be linked to different ancestries or traits.
Once zoomed in at the right location the scientist looks to see whether a variant in the DNA is present at the specified location.
Variants are differences in the coding of DNA between person to person and are often passed from one generation to the next which is why they can help us identify ancestry.
Once the DNA has been analyzed, the good people at 23andMe put all the information together in a digital report that can be viewed on their app.
From order to report, the whole process can take anywhere from 4-8 weeks according to the 23andMe website when you factor in the postage.
There are two products offered by 23andMe, the first is the Ancestry+Traits Service and the second one is Health + Ancestry Service.
Both products investigate your ancestry and provide over 50 reports that explore everything from your ancestry composition (where your DNA comes from) to the amount of Neanderthal DNA in you.
The ancestry reports also provide detailed information about the specific areas within countries that your DNA is found in so you can narrow down your heritage to towns and cities in some cases.
The ancestry service also allows you to opt into a relative finder service. This is really cool as it allows you to see people from across the globe who share DNA with you.
The report also shows you what level of connection you have with each person and allows you to message them, so you can try and figure out where on your family tree they fit.
It also updates frequently with new users, so you can keep growing your family tree.
Another shared feature of both services is the traits report. These are over 30 reports that tell you whether or not you have the variant gene responsible for things like male bald spots, bunions, or a preference for sweet over salty tastes.
The traits reports are fun and interesting to look at but they don’t include information about genuine health-related issues.
Their Health+Ancestry Service does check for variants that can cause different health conditions. These reports include checks for things such as Late-onset Alzheimers and Type 2 diabetes.
It is important to note that the DNA test doesn’t diagnose you with these conditions but can identify whether you might be more at risk of these conditions.
It also includes 40+ carrier status reports which can tell you whether you carry the genes for hereditary conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis or Hearing Loss. These reports do make it clear that while they have tested some of the genes associated with these diseases they haven’t tested all of them so it is still possible to be a carrier even if your test says you’re not.
The final aspect of the health service are the wellness reports. There are around 5 reports, it varies on what they can pick up, which can identify things that may affect your health but aren’t conditions. These reports include your genetic disposition to weight, caffeine, and muscle composition.
With all of the reports, you get background and scientific information to help you understand how the information was found and also how your ancestry or your traits may impact you.
The ancestry reports also allow you to explore the timeline of your DNA, seeing when your ancestors lived in certain areas and have lots of historical and cultural information about different places across the globe.
I have personally used 23andMe and overall I am really pleased with the service.
I’m going to share my experience with you, as well as the experiences of others so that you get a fair representation of the products and company.
I like a bargain as well as the next person so even though I’d been thinking about purchasing an ancestry kit, I didn’t take the plunge until Black Friday when 23andMe ran a sale. On sale, the Health+Ancestry Service was about half its usual price.
I’ll be honest, there isn’t much difference in price between the standard Ancestry+Traits Service and other ancestry DNA tests such as AncestryDNA and Living DNA.
You see the difference when you add the health report. 23andMe offers the most in-depth health analysis of any other DNA test company. Competitors focus on ancestry and heritage but 23andMe put equal emphasis on health and ancestry.
The health test will cost you almost double the price of a standard ancestry kit unless you manage to snag it on sale as I did. You can add a later health report if you don’t want to pay out the full cost initially but you will pay a little bit more for this as you lose out on a multi-purchase offer.
Ultimately, if you do want that comprehensive health report, you don’t have many other options. Personally, I think there is just as much information on the health side as there is on the ancestry side to justify the double cost.
The bottom line with the price is that 23andMe matches its competitors for the price of its Ancestry+Traits test but the Health+Ancestry test doubles the cost. They do have frequent sales around holidays so keep an eye out for those to snatch a bargain!
One of the things I was worried about was what would happen to my DNA after I had sent it?
23andMe allows you to choose whether your DNA is stored or destroyed after testing. If you allow it to be stored you can also opt into further research where they will use your sample to detect new markers and variants for example.
You can also opt in to allow your results to be shared with researchers in aggregate form. This means that there is no name or personal data linked to the results but the results themselves are used in research.
One of the things that put my mind most at ease, was the fact that no personal details are stored with your DNA. Each customer is assigned a unique identifying number and that number is stored with your DNA.
This means, even in the unlikely event of a physical or digital break-in, your name and personal information can’t be linked to the DNA sample and vice versa.
In terms of data protection and sharing, 23andMe does not sell or share your data with any third parties including employers or insurance companies. They do comply with legitimate law enforcement requests where appropriate like all other companies.
In the event of death or incapacitation of a participant, a relative can be granted access to the account and can ask for samples to be destroyed providing they complete an authorization form and provide evidence. This is a comforting if a slightly morbid, reminder that our information still belongs to us after death. Not all companies offer this service.
There were three things I loved about the sample kit.
Number 1: It fits in a mailbox. You do not have to wait in for a parcel delivery, which is amazing!
Number 2: The instructions have pictures so you can tell exactly what you need to do. You might not need the pictures because it is a really simple process, but they were handy for me!
Number 3: Return postage is paid for and uses the same box it came in. There’s no hassle when repackaging and limited waste!
I don’t have any major issues with 23andMe’s sampling kit. It is really straightforward to collect your saliva sample and package it up ready for sending back to them.
I will say, even though the fill line is fairly low, I was surprised by how long it took me to fill to the line. By the time I had filled it, my mouth was drier than a box of crackers. I don’t think this is an issue with 23andMe, I’m sure I’d have had the same issue with other kits, but it’s something to consider.
Turn Around Time
When I purchased my kit in November 2019 in 23andMe’s Black Friday sale, I was one of the thousands of customers across the globe doing exactly the same thing.
It actually took about 12 weeks for my results to be processed and compiled into my report. This was partly to do with the fact that I didn’t send my sample back until after Christmas, probably around the same time as everyone else who received a kit for Christmas.
The delay in processing was communicated to me through email and the app and I was able to track the progress of my kit from the moment the return shipping was registered.
Having to wait that long was sort of frustrating but I could understand why the delay happened. It seems, from more recent customer reviews, that testing capacity has been upped and that turnaround time is now back to the stated 2-5 weeks.
I know that some people have a much longer experience if their sample is not able to be processed effectively.
23andMe’s advertised turnaround times are shorter than other competitors, with AncestryDNA taking around 6-8 weeks and Family Tree DNA taking 10-12 weeks. Most customers do seem to receive their results in this time frame, so I think my experience was an anomaly.
The reports provided by 23andMe are fantastic! The level of information provided is great and it allows you to look at the science behind the results as well as what the results mean for you.
The focus on scientific detail is a direct result of the company’s ethos. They wanted to use the DNA service to help people understand DNA and how it works.
This is why their approach and reports are slightly different from other companies who established their services for the sole purpose of identifying ancestors and heritage.
Let’s start with the ancestry reports
When you first open up the ancestry page of the app you will see your ancestry composition which is presented in a pie chart.
The countries and areas found in your DNA are highlighted on a world map in the same colors as the pie chart so you can see at a glance where your DNA comes from.
You can then click through each individual segment on the chart to discover how much of your DNA is from a specific location and it will even suggest cities and towns within a country that could be in your ancestry.
The city-level location system is based on how many people in a town or city share DNA markers with you so it is dependent on how many users 23andMe has in a particular area. Their user base is around 12, 000, 000 so most people will be able to see at least a few cities.
Other ancestry reports include your ancestry timeline which tracks how many generations ago your ancestors would have lived in certain areas and a parental inheritance graph which shows how many of your genes were inherited from each of your parents. You can only get information from this if your parents have taken the test too.
What I love about the ancestry reports is how simply and clearly 23andMe explains how they got your results. It tells you all about how they can trace DNA to specific times and locations and also gives you more information about traits and variants that are specific to different groups of people.
A cool feature is the Neanderthal DNA percentage. It not only tells you how much neanderthal DNA you have but how that compares with other users. You can see whether or not you have more or less Neanderthal DNA than other people which is fascinating.
23andMe doesn’t only focus on the science of ancestral DNA, however. Your report gives you access to thousands of articles about the history and cultures of your DNA locations, allowing you to explore your genetic heritage.
The health reports are equally detailed and, crucially, reassuring.
I was wary of having the health report done because I was a bit worried about what it would bring up. I didn’t know if I wanted to find out that I carried genetic conditions that could be passed on to my children.
However, the information contained in the health reports is really clear on the fact that it is just an indication and that further investigation should be done by medical professionals before making big decisions.
I found that the information about the conditions and diseases tested in the health report was clear and informative without being terribly frightening and the science behind the results is fascinating.
All health and trait reports are published with the results first so you can scan through the lists without having to do lots of reading to figure out what it means for you. The supplemental information can be found by clicking on a particular result.
23andMe are continuously researching so there are fairly frequent updates to health reports and invitations to answer questionnaires to help their studies.
23andMe is a reputable, accurate, and precise DNA ancestry service. It matches competitors on price but provides much more information in reports and accompanying articles.
The health test is an added expense, but it is one of a kind in the market and well worth the cost in my eyes as it not only gives you information about your genetic health but offers guides and support for managing your health too.
If you’ve got the cash to spare, I’d go for the Health+Ancestry Service from 23andMe over other DNA tests out there.