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Efficacious Enzymes Enhance Nutrient Assimilation

Efficacious Enzymes Enhance Nutrient Assimilation

by Heather Granato

Enzymes have been used in food preparation and for personal health for thousands of years, from fermented grapes becoming wine to cabbage being made into sauerkraut and served with roasted meats to ease digestion. In fact, the word "enzyme" comes from enzymos, which is Greek for leavened or fermented.

Currently more than 3,000 types of enzymes--protein-based substances that are found in every cell of plants and animals--have been identified. Enzymes catalyze chemical reactions, or increase their rate, without being affected themselves. They are composed of a protein portion, known as apoenzymes, and a nonprotein portion, either an inorganic cofactor or organic coenzyme.

Enzymes can be classified into six main groups: hydrolases, isomerases, ligases, lyases, oxidoreductases and transferases. The primary enzymes of concern in the nutritional and functional food arena have been the hydrolases, so named because they work by adding a water molecule to the substance to be impacted. The main classes of hydrolytic enzymes are protease (which breaks down the peptide bonds in proteins), amylase (carbohydrates), lipase (fats or lipids) and cellulase (plant cellulose). Each category is broken down into individual enzymes that are highly specific in both the substrate they affect and the reactions they catalyze. Bromelain, for instance, converts proteins into amino acids, while lactase acts on lactose (milk sugar).

Enzymes can improve the digestion of food, reduce stress in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, help maintain normal pH levels and promote the growth of healthy intestinal flora. Many foods contain the enzymes necessary for their digestion. However, enzymes are highly susceptible to changing environmental conditions such as pH and temperature, and are destroyed by the high temperatures that are necessary for cooking and processing. Taking supplemental enzymes reduces the stress on the body to produce enzymes for digestion. Because the body also produces metabolic enzymes to run body systems, freeing up organs such as the liver and pancreas can benefit whole body health.

Rising consumer interest in enzyme supplementation can be tracked to increased publicity about using lactase to make people with lactose intolerance able to ingest dairy foods. "The enzyme market really became legitimized when people realized lactase worked," said Peter Moodie, director of sales and marketing with Enzyme Development Corp. in New York. "The expression of lactase units was standardized among suppliers and units of activity were spelled out on the label, so consumers knew they were getting what was claimed and that it worked."

Enzymes can be sourced from animals, plants or microorganisms such as fungi or bacteria. Pancreatin is still the best-known animal-source enzyme. Derived from animal tissues, its activity is typically very specific in action and limited to a narrow pH range. Its activity is primarily proteolytic. Plant enzymes can be sourced from botanicals such as pineapple (bromelain) or papaya (papain) and are generally effective within a broad pH range. They exhibit predominantly proteolytic activity. Finally, enzymes derived from selected microorganisms, through the process of fermentation, exhibit a broad pH range and a relatively broad action on a number of foods.

After determining the source of enzymes desired for a product, the next step is ensuring the product is potent. Enzyme activity is not evaluated by weight, but through assaying the quantity of hydrolysis that occurs under specific conditions. This includes a range of concentration, quantity, pH, temperature and substrate.

There are many assays used to detect enzyme activity, which are specific to the type of enzyme and the source (i.e., type of bacteria). Two independent scientific organizations have attempted to standardize ingredients used in foods and dietary supplements. The Committee on Food Chemicals Codex (FCC), a division of the U.S. Institute of Medicine, publishes the Food Chemicals Codex. This reference manual includes monographs and testing methods for a range of food chemicals, including many enzymes. FCC focuses on food grade ingredients, and its assays are more generally used for microbial and plant-based enzymes. The U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) also publishes standard assays for many pharmaceutical and nutraceutical ingredients. USP's testing is generally directed more toward pharmaceutical use enzymes and its methodology is more often employed for assaying animal-derived enzymes.

These assays form the primary basis for purchasing enzymes. Suppliers emphasize that enzymes should always be sold on the basis of potency rather than weight. "The first things to find out are what is the activity level and what FCC or USP recognized assay was used to make the determination," said Philip Ronsivalli, sales manager for Kennesaw, Ga.-based Deerland Enzymes ( "That helps with purchasing decisions."

Also important are safety criteria and processing methods. "Raw materials should be tested for a variety of contaminants, and manufacturing areas should also be checked," said Gary Bennett, marketing manager at National Enzyme Co. in Forsyth, Mo. "Processing methods can also take a great toll on enzyme activity. It is critical that a manufacturer develop a relationship with a supplier that is set up for testing multiple enzyme activities, has knowledge of the science of enzymology and provides quality control in testing the finished product to ensure enzyme activity is maintained."

The heavy emphasis on quality control and efficacy in purchasing underscore the concerns some industry members have expressed about increased fraud in the market. "There are so many companies that put a lot of window dressing on their label," Moodie said. "Legitimate companies are fighting companies that are making knockoff products at one-third the price and not labeling enzyme activity. It could be 50 mg of papain with 1 FCC unit per milligram or 50,000 units per milligram."

Unvalidated claims are another area of concern. While systemic use of enzyme products for conditions such as blunt-trauma injury or arthritic inflammation control is a growing area of interest, the science is still developing. "As a supplier, we are reticent to make claims that don't have hard science behind them," Ronsivalli said. "Marketers need the science to support claims about how enzymes affect the body's health."

Bennett noted that studies are underway to help scientists understand, for example, how oral proteolytic enzymes may act as anti-inflammatory agents. "Preliminary data suggests that fungal proteolytic enzymes suppress the immune response by mediating the cytokines that are released," he said.

To clarify these and other issues of interest to consumers and manufacturers, many suppliers have issued print and electronic educational materials about selecting enzymes and understanding their activity that can be used by both consumers and industry. National Enzyme Co., for example, launched Enzyme University ( in 1999; the Web site features frequently asked questions, technical information, buyer tips and links to other educational sites. "The language contained in the site is conducive to learning no matter what a person's background or expertise," Bennett said. And Enyzme Development Corp. offers a "Buyer's Guide to Enzymes" on its Web site ( that includes not only a review of issues, but a worksheet to assist in purchasing.

As the science of enzymes develops, new applications are certain to follow. Suppliers and manufacturers working together to educate consumers will ensure that quality and efficacy are the hallmark of these products in both nutraceutical and functional food items. 


Enzyme Purchasing/Specification Questions

Spelling out in advance what the requirements are from the formulation department can help buyers and suppliers best match their needs. Buyers who get the answers to these questions from their formulators and suppliers ensure their time is well spent, and the ultimate product meets specifications.

  • What type of enzyme do we need? (e.g., protease, amylase)

  • What source of the enzyme is best? (e.g., A. oryzae, B. subtilis, pancreatin)

  • What is the activity required? (e.g., Amylase skb/g vs. DU/g)

  • Is the assay method published or available?

  • What is the expression of activity? (e.g., unit/gram, unit/ml)

  • What is the standardizing agent? (e.g., maltodextrin, starch)

  • Will the enzyme activity be part of the label?

  • Will there be any stated guarantee of enzyme activity
    on the label?

  • Are written specifications available to give to the vendor?

  • Who tests the quality standards? (e.g., vendor, third party)

  • Are other certifications, such as kosher or halal, required?

  • Is the product free of other ingredients? (e.g., wheat, lactose)

Information courtesy of Enzyme Development Corp., "Buyer's Guide to Enzymes"




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