Dietary Supplements and Digestive Enzymes

  • Enzymes have a fundamental role in our many digestive issues.

Food is composed of large molecules commonly referred to as sugars, fats, and proteins. In order for the body to harness the nutritional value of food, these molecules must be broken down to a more bioavailable size. This is the critical role that enzymes play. Consumers should be able to get the enzymes they need from food, but in an age when most of our food is either processed or cooked over 118 degrees (the point beyond which the enzymes in raw food become denatured), getting these enzymes directly from food isn’t always possible.

Supplemental enzymes can make it easier for us to obtain the nutrients we’re eating food for in the first place. So let’s look at the many ways in which enzymes can improve consumer health—from average consumers, to serious athletes, to consumers with unique health issues.

Hold Up…What About Antacids?

The main active ingredient in these products is an acid neutralizer, often calcium carbonate, which helps neutralize acid in the stomach. Too much acid means the acid will climb back up (or “reflux”) to the esophagus, resulting in heartburn. But, as Nena Dockery, scientific and regulatory affairs manager at National Enzyme Co. (Forsyth, MO), explains, humans require that acid.

Gastric acid is an important part of the digestive process because it helps to physically break down food. But it also contributes to the digestive system by activating pepsin, which is the first critical enzyme for digesting protein in the body. If you take an antacid, your physical breakdown of food is stalled. Without the digestive benefits of gastric acid, partial digestion can occur in the stomach, and food enters the small intestine in a more intact state, placing an unnecessary burden on the enzymes in your pancreas and intestine.

Acid neutralizers can help those who really do have too much acid, but Dockery says they should be used temporarily. At the least, a product with calcium carbonate should include enzymes to help compensate for the loss of physical breakdown provided by gastric acid as well as the loss of enzymatic activity from pepsin. National Enzyme offers a product like this: BioCore AR, calcium carbonate with enzymes. Deerland Enzymes (Kennesaw, GA) also offers its GastroBlock alternative to antacids.

Enzymes for Everyone

Beyond the fact that various lifestyle factors and normal aging will impair our bodies’ ability to produce enzymes, much of the reasoning attributed to enzyme supplementation for healthy people is the idea of added health insurance. A conversation I had with one enzyme supplier about children provides some good logic.

“Should the average parent want his or her child to supplement with enzymes?” I asked Deerland Enzymes CEO Scott Ravech.

“Well, do you give children multivitamins?” asked Ravech. “Why give children Flintstones chewables if they’re getting everything they need from their diets? The reality is that we live in a time when fast and processed foods have become the norm. As a result, many parents give their kids multivitamins to try to ensure they receive the vitamins and minerals needed for a more balanced diet. The same holds true for digestive enzymes. When foods are processed, the enzymes your body needs to aid in digestion may be lost or weakened. Supplementing with the appropriate digestive enzymes may aid to replenish these lost but necessary enzymes.” As always, it is a good practice to consult with your child’s physician prior to making a final decision on enzyme supplementation.

An important side note is that enzymes are very specific. Proteases for breaking down protein, lipases for breaking down fats, and amylases for breaking down carbohydrates represent some of the main pillars in enzyme supplementation.

Enzyme Blending

Enzyme blending is a practical choice when it comes to manufacturing an enzyme supplement for overall or even specific digestion.

Sabinsa’s (East Windsor, NJ) DigeZyme enzyme complex, primarily derived from fungi, is a good example. “What we have is a composite of enzymes in our product, and they are chosen so that the effect will be the maximum,” says Sabinsa president of research and development N. Kalyanam, PhD. “When a person consumes proteins or carbohydrates, you need to metabolize them, and our enzyme complex is able to help that. It has protease to help digest proteins and amylase to take care of carbohydrate materials. Even if you are normally healthy, these enzymes will be helpful to you because they act in concert with the enzymes already in the body.”

Enzyme blends are also beneficial because certain enzymes work in different ways—even if, by name, their functions seem similar. This is where consultation with your ingredient supplier becomes critical.

Take protease as an example. “Every protease has a different specificity,” says Chris Penet, vice president of marketing at Bio-Cat Inc. (Troy, VA), a specialist in enzyme complexes. “One acid protease might work on casein from dairy products; another might work better on structural proteins from meat; another might work on soy—so it really is a cocktail that consumers should be looking for. The blended approach is really the most common way to put a product in the marketplace.”

Enzymes also vary based on how they hold up in environments. An acid protease can hold its own in the stomach’s highly acidic environment. A neutral protease may become denatured in the stomach, but is still considered aggressive enough to have its own breakdown benefits.

Lactose Intolerance

For an estimated 30 to 50 million in the United States alone, there’s nothing harder to break down than lactose. This inability to break down milk sugar is something lactase enzymes can help solve. However, issues with consuming dairy extend beyond lactose intolerance.

“Sometimes, there’s a problem with digesting milk protein or even milk fat,” says National Enzyme’s Dockery. “These issues might bring to mind the common complaint, more frequent as we age, of ‘I used to be able to eat [this dairy product], but now I can’t.’ In these instances, other enzymes can be helpful. And if you want to cover a full-spectrum dairy relief with enzymes, National Enzyme’s BioCore Dairy Ultra has that covered. This unique blend contains not only lactase to help break down lactose, but also specific proteases and lipase to aid in the digestion of milk protein and milk fat.”

Enzymes for Sports

Milk is of particular significance in sports because of the popularity of milk-derived protein ingredients. Whey is one of the most successful protein ingredients in sports, but man—how do you cope with the gas and…other digestive problems?

A look at today’s bodybuilding market indicates that products with milk-based ingredients often include milk-related enzymes. Optimum Nutrition’s (Aurora, IL) Platinum Hydro Builder protein complex includes a complex of amylase, protease, cellulose, lactase, and lipase to inhibit unwanted digestive effects. Moreover, those enzymes help ensure absorption of the product’s nutrients because, dairy aside, optimal protein absorption is always important.

“Much time has been focused on enzyme supplementation and its benefit in digestion, but systemic enzyme supplements are also becoming more popular,” says Deerland Enzymes’ Ravech. “This could be very appealing to athletes who are not only trying to maximize their nutrient uptake from the food they consume but may also find recovery (anti-inflammatory) benefit from systemic enzymes as well.”

Enzyme supplementation for the extreme diets of serious athletes can also help ensure breakdown of carbohydrates from a high-carbohydrate diet. “For athletes who intake lots of carbs and need to break those down outside of muscular-building activity, a blend with amylase makes sense,” says Sabinsa marketing director Shaheen Majeed. “An athlete might burn most carbs, but if he or she took a break from working out, while still maintaining high carbs, this could be problematic.”

Increased Absorption of Vitamins and Minerals

Limited science suggests that, beyond breaking down nutrients, enzymes can even increase the absorption of certain vitamins, minerals, and even other important dietary components as well.

“This is particularly true of minerals,” says National Enzyme’s Dockery. “We don’t have the enzymes in our body that break down cell wall structures, and some of the structures in that cell wall, such as phytic acid and oxalic acid, can bind to minerals and prevent them from being absorbed into the system. However, supplemental fiber-breaking enzymes, such as cellulase, can help rupture these cell wall structures, releasing the nutrients for absorption through the intestinal wall.  Supplementation with the right enzymes can help enhance the bioaccessibility of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese present in whole foods.”

On the vitamin side, research conducted by Sabinsa Corp. suggests that enzymes can even increase vitamin bioavailability. In trials with the company’s BioPerine piperine extract—an ingredient already shown to increase vitamin bioavailability—Sabinsa’s DigeZyme enzyme complex proved to further increase absorption of vitamin C.

Future of Enzymes

As more research and funding goes into enzyme science, there is great potential for further breakthroughs in the broad category.

“Theoretically, you can look at enzymes for a potential to break down different components that might be causing food allergies or things that aren’t digestible to most humans today,” says Bio-Cat’s Penet. “This potential also applies to a lot of animal feed and pet markets, as well.”

One of the more interesting stories on the enzyme front today centers around the work of Stanford professor Chaitan Khosla, who has pioneered a project to investigate an oral protease enzyme as a potential therapy for celiac disease.

Lactose-Intolerance Breakthroughs

One of the most common connections of enzymes to the average consumer, dairy consumption has spurred a host of innovative breakthroughs to make dairy products more digestible for everyone.

Earlier this year, dairy ingredients giant Arla Foods (Viby, Denmark) announced a licensing package to make its lactose-free milk-production technology available to international dairy companies. The process involves mechanically separating half of milk’s lactose out of the milk and adding lactase to break down the remaining lactose. This process is said to “predigest” the lactose in milk, all while preserving milk’s natural composition and taste.