Enzymes: Bull’s Eye

October 7, 2010

Considering that enzymes catalyze virtually every biological process in the human body, it can be a serious problem if a person’s enzyme balance is out of whack.

Considering that enzymes catalyze virtually every biological process in the human body, it can be a serious problem if a person’s enzyme balance is out of whack.

Many factors can cause an enzyme imbalance or deficiency. One of the biggest culprits? The food we eat. While raw food delivers enzymes, cooking or processing food destroys them. Thus, if a person’s diet is high in processed foods, the body must then rely on whatever enzymes are in the body itself. However, aging, disease, and genetics, as well as the ingestion of foods containing enzyme inhibitors, such as nuts and beans, can lower our body’s enzyme supply. Hence, supplementation is key considering today’s Western diet.

While there are thousands of known enzymes in the human body, the dietary supplement industry focuses on just a handful, mainly those aimed at digestion. Digestive enzyme formulas will typically contain one or more proteases to break down protein, amylase and perhaps glucoamylase to assist in starch digestion, and lipase for fat digestion. These formulas often also contain additional enzymes to help digest specific food components. For instance, cellulase helps break down plant fibers, lactase digests milk sugar and invertase, and alpha-galactosidase and sucrase help break down various sugars.

Digestion and Beyond

While digestive health still represents the lion’s share of the enzymes market, awareness is growing that enzymes can address other systemic health functions as well.

Enzymes are playing a larger role in cardiovascular health. Proteases break down protein, and certain proteases can also help break down fibrin (clot-forming proteins), improving circulation.

Lipases are being looked at for weight management. “People might think that if our bodies break down more fat, we’re just going to get fatter as the fat makes its way into our system,” says Nena Dockery, scientific and regulatory affairs manager, National Enzyme Co. (NEC; Forsyth, MO). “That’s not necessarily true. I think that researchers are going to be doing more studies to find out how lipases break down fats and the positive effects that can come from this.”

Enzymes are also increasingly being used in sports applications, says Dockery, not just to help in the digestion of high-protein supplements and meals, but also to help diminish the soreness and minor inflammation caused by the normal muscle stress experienced during workouts.

Another function that enzymes might serve is as antioxidants to break down free radicals in the body, says Hilton Dawson, chief technology officer for Deerland Enzymes (Kennesaw, GA).

“There are three main enzymes that are considered antioxidant enzymes-superoxide dismutase, or SOD; catalase; and glutathione peroxidase,” explains Dockery. These antioxidant enzymes could play a role in immune support, she says.

In addition, enzymes may also aid nutrient bioavailability. “Researchers have been looking at how enzymes break down nutrients to the point that they become more easily absorbed in the system so that your body gets a better benefit from those nutrients,” says Dockery.

These additional health conditions could widen the scope and potential of enzyme applications. “Digestion is still our biggest category, and we’re seeing a lot of growth there, but other categories such as cardiovascular health and inflammation are growing at an attractive pace,” says Scott Ravech, CEO of Deerland Enzymes.

Getting Specific

Considering growing applications for enzymes-including in digestive health-formulations are becoming more advanced and specialized than ever before.

“The most recent trend in enzyme therapy is toward condition-specific products,” says Mike Smith, vice president of Specialty Enzymes and Biotechnologies (Chino, CA).

Rather than single-enzyme formulas (perhaps a lactase-only supplement that addresses lactose intolerance or an alpha-galactosidase to address digestion-induced flatulence) or basic enzyme blends, it’s common now to see specialty blends, either multi-enzyme blends or blends including other ingredients such as probiotics, botanicals, and antioxidants, that synergistically work with enzymes to better target a health condition.

Digestive-health enzyme blends are becoming more specialized as well. Increasingly, companies are formulating products to target a specific aspect of digestion.

For instance, NEC recently introduced ZIP EX2, a “three-tiered” supplement to help consumers facilitate digestion and nutrient absorption and fight off feelings of fatigue, or “food coma,” that can occur due to “energy-zapping digestive stress.” The solution combines enzymes, including BioCore Lipo, part of NEC’s successful BioCore enzyme line, and herbs and vitamins, including B vitamins that provide an energy boost. “It’s an example of how you can take an enzyme blend to the next level,” says Katie Gumm, marketing communications specialist for NEC.

Some formulations also follow market trends. Consider the skyrocketing popularity of omega-3. “Researchers are now looking at how some of the fat-digesting enzymes can help with the utilization of healthy fats,” says Dockery.

Caution must be taken when formulating with various ingredients to ensure that blends preserve enzyme activity-and protect other ingredients. For instance, a protease might start to break down any protein in a formula.

That’s where the knowledge of an experienced enzyme company is crucial, to ensure that a formula maximizes enzyme activity. Considering the vast array of enzymes that exist and their infinite combinations, including with other ingredients, it takes an expert to know which enzymes work together for the best result. Deerland’s YourBlend program emphasizes the customization approach that enzyme formulation necessitates.

“It’s all about customization,” says Ravech. “Many companies may be pursuing a very similar human condition, such as digestion, but their approach may be very different. Some of the formulations we create and manufacture can contain up to 20 ingredients or more, which may include both enzyme and non-enzyme raw materials.”

“It is our belief that off-the-shelf, fixed formulas are limited in their ability to satisfy the diverse performance needs of our customers,” he continues. “With YourBlend, we invest a significant amount of time collaborating with our customers at the concept stage to truly understand what performance benefits they want their product to offer in their market.”

Expertise also involves testing formulas to ensure that enzymes are exhibiting the highest-possible activity.

“Unlike vitamins and minerals, which have a clear Daily Value, enzymes do not,” says Specialty Enzymes’ Smith. “As a result, enzyme labeling can be problematic. Not only is there no Daily Value to guide consumers, but the actual mg amount is practically meaningless. The essential measure of enzymes is by activity, rather than weight. If you think of an enzyme as a protein that does work, the higher the activity, the greater the amount of work it can do. Still, another complicating factor is that there are many different ways to measure activity.” He says that in North America, the Food Chemicals Codex and U.S. Pharmacopeia assays are used most often.

“We spend an inordinate amount of time assaying multicomponent blends to ensure they meet the agreed specification and that one ingredient isn’t interacting with another in a negative way,” says Ravech. “We try to understand the interactions of these materials, to see if one ingredient may hinder the presence of another or might render one completely inactive.”

Taking Enzymes Mainstream

Given the importance of enzymes in keeping the body functioning properly, one would think that consumers would be more aware of the role and necessity of enzyme supplementation. Unfortunately, consumer awareness is still somewhat low-especially, as Smith points out, since it’s not the weight or presence of enzyme ingredients on a label that determines a good product, but rather, and more intricately, how those ingredients work in blend to promote the highest activity.

“Consumers face a real challenge with enzyme products since few actually understand what the activity units on a supplement label mean,” he says.

“One of the big things that our customers spend a lot of time on is educating consumers about the activity of enzyme blends,” adds Ravech. “I can give you a 500-mg digestive blend of very weak enzymes that won’t come close to doing what a 50- or 100-mg capsule of highly concentrated enzymes would do.”

“It’s not just a matter of learning what each enzyme in and of itself can do, but making sure you understand the activity of those enzymes and what they need to do in order to get the benefit you’re looking for,” he says.

Smith says that currently, word of mouth between consumers has been driving information on which products seem to work better than others.

“We see ourselves as being between a vitamin, which consumers intuitively know is helping them, and a pharmaceutical, which you quickly feel the effects of,” says Ravech. “As people start to take enzyme supplements and begin to feel better after they eat, they start to gravitate toward enzyme supplements.”

He says that supplement retailers are doing a great job of educating the consumer about enzyme benefits-which helped the category do well in a down economy. “It really does feel like a grassroots effort.”

And consumers are learning. “The younger population, or even the forward-thinking aging population, are Internet savvy and are learning all kinds of information about enzymes and their benefits,” says Ravech.

“While consumers are still spending much more on traditional supplements, I believe that natural product solutions such as enzymes are attracting new customers every day,” he continues. “Through innovation and formulations that are truly effective, our collective goal is for enzyme supplementation to achieve mainstream acceptance.”