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 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.