Sifting through old family photos and sharing the stories of generations past is a treasured practice for many. It's a way to keep memories alive, but it's also how many of us learn about our family history. But some may not have access to these photographs and memories, or may want to dive even deeper, and turn to DNA testing services to build a more complete picture of their family tree.
AncestryDNA (a subsidiary of Ancestry.com) and 23andMe are two popular resources to help you learn about your family history. Both require a saliva sample, and analyze your DNA to infer where your family originated from. The analysis can also potentially detect relationships with other users based on their submitted samples. In addition, the analyses can also provide wellness and health reports with information on cancer risks, health predispositions, carrier status and more.
We tried both DNA testing kits. Here's how to tell which one is best for you.
AncestryDNA gives you two DNA testing kit options: An AncestryDNA kit (currently on sale for $59, results of which include ethnicity and historical details and DNA matches, with the option to pay $10 more to see how your DNA influences personal traits like eye color and hair type), or an Ancestry Health (currently on sale for $99, which includes everything the other kit does, plus personalized health reports and a family health history tool).
I tried the Ancestry Health kit, which cost about $109 after shipping, and comes with a saliva collection tube and cap, a return bag and a prepaid return label box. To register the kit, I downloaded the Ancestry app and scanned the barcode on the side of the collection tube. You can register your kit online too, and just manually enter the number.
When you make an account, the app asks for your consent on several items, including consent to process your sample, to store the sample if you want future testing, and to participate in research. Research includes taking surveys and questionnaires that AncestryDNA says it will use to attempt to better understand human history and health.
I declined consent to store my sample or participate in research. AncestryDNA asks a few questions about your health history. You can edit what information becomes public or private on the site, and how you want to appear to other users if your DNA matches with someone else. You'll have an opportunity to review all information before proceeding.
Ancestry has 16 million users profiles, compared to 23andMe's 10 million, which should in theory mean more accurate results. However, Ancestry does not use the standard Y-chromosome and/or mitochondrial DNA methodologies most others use -- so we know less about how they actually analyze DNA.
After spitting in the tube, I mailed off the kit and confirmed that it was sent off in the app. The app "tracked" the kit's journey from being received at the lab to processing and more before it told me my results were in.
The AncestryHealth report came in first, and was broken down into Notable Health Results, Health Results and Wellness Results. The reports include information about cancer risks, carrier status for diseases like cystic fibrosis and your blood health. The wellness reports break down to give you information on your vitamin levels among other things.
AncestryHealth can flag potential health conditions based on the family history you filled out, or by variants detected in your DNA sample. However, the site reiterates multiple times that the report you receive isn't a diagnosis. The health screening also does not have FDA approval.
Outside of the health report, the test generated an Ethnicity Estimate report, which showed what regions in the world my ancestors were most likely linked to. AncestryDNA estimated my highest connection was England, Wales and Northwestern Europe. It also flagged the Scottish Lowlands, Northern England and Northern Ireland. This area on the map was color-coded, along with the others that my DNA was linked to. The AncestryDNA Regions list has over 1,000 regions that your sample is tested against, so you'll see where your DNA didn't turn up results too. The report also included brief history of each area.
AncestryDNA also tells you which other users your DNA closely matches with. It flagged my aunt, who also used the site, as Close Family. The app let me compare our Ethnicity Estimates and gave me the option to send her a message.
I'd already made a family tree on the Ancestry website, so it was interesting to link my DNA results to the tree. A downside was that the family tree aspect and the DNA aspect required two separate apps; however, the desktop version keeps it all in one place if you work on a browser.
If you choose 23andMe, you can pick from three different DNA testing kits. An Ancestry and Traits kit ($99) breaks down your ancestry and gives a report on genetic traits. The Health and Ancestry kit ($199) adds on health insights and FDA-authorized reports. VIP Health Ancestry ($499) comes with two kits, priority processing in the lab, and a walkthrough of your results on the phone.
I tried the Health and Ancestry kit, which came with the saliva collection tube and cap, a return bag and a prepaid return label box. Like AncestryDNA, 23andMe also required kit registration (in-app or online) prior to testing. I downloaded the app and scanned the barcode on the side of the collection tube. You can also manually enter the code.
The 23andMe kit asked for consent on several items when I made an account, as AncestryDNA did. I could store my sample for future tests, participate in research, get health reports, and had the ability to share my steps data from your fitness app for a more comprehensive look at your activity. I declined all except the health reports.
Unlike Ancestry, 23andMe does have FDA approval as a risk screener for a handful of genetic conditions and diseases -- if you're primarily interested in DNA testing for this purpose, 23andMe is the better choice.
The app tracked my sample's journey to the lab and the DNA extraction process. In the final report, which I could view in the mobile app or online, 23andMe broke down a majority of my ancestry into European > Northwestern European > French and German, British and Irish. The app tested 216 populations to generate the report.
23andMe can display the results in a timeline, so you can see approximately how many generations ago your most recent ancestor came from each region. For example, my results turned up a tiny bit of Ashkenazi Jewish background, but my timeline indicated that the relative would've been alive five to eight generations ago. You can also view your results as a Chromosome Painting, which shows where in your chromosomes a specific region matched and how prevalent it is.
There were a lot of facets to explore in the results. For example, 23andMe gave me more information on each region my DNA matched with. If I tapped on the icon for each country, 23andMe told me about the history of the region and the people's migration patterns over time, and also provided resources to learn about the culture, ways to book an Airbnb to visit and other features. I could also seek out possible relatives among 23andMe users, and found my mother's cousin.
23andMe's health reports included predispositions, carrier status, wellness, traits and a health action plan. Predispositions tested for Parkinson's disease, Type 2 diabetes, celiac disease and more. The lab would test for certain genetic variants. Like with AncestryDNA, 23andMe specified that the test results weren't a diagnosis or a guarantee that you wouldn't be diagnosed with a disease later on. The wellness report included interesting items like whether or not you're a deep sleeper, how much you likely move in your sleep, genetic weight and other factors. The traits report was particularly interesting. These detailed how likely I was to be able to have a certain eye color, hate cilantro, have freckles, hate eating sounds, get bitten more by mosquitos and other things. And a lot of it was right! I would have had to pay extra to learn about these features with the AncestryDNA kit.
Ancestry is best known for its family tree feature. When you use its DNA testing service and integrate those results, you can view everything in one browser. Unfortunately, the information is also split across two different mobile apps, which is less helpful. But overall, Ancestry's tools, including the ability to build a tree and link your health and DNA insights, definitely help paint a bigger picture of a person's origins and can help facilitate a conversation with newly discovered family members.
23andMe had a more user-friendly layout, and presented its findings in a way that encourages you to immerse yourself in your (possibly newfound) heritage. However, it lacks the strength that Ancestry has when it comes to building your family tree. I could view a predicted tree, but it was sparse and only included other 23andMe users.
Because I was already familiar with my family's origins, I can say that both kits seemed to yield accurate results. If you're just looking to learn about your own genetics and traits in an easy-to-read format, or are looking primarily for health information, I'd go with 23andMe. But if you're working on a family history project and are already familiar with the Ancestry platform, I'd go with it instead.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.