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Understanding Digestive Enzymes

Enzyme ingredients step in to help provide a greater variety of safe and nutritious foods for consumers.

By Claudia O’Donnell, Contributing Editor

Basket of VegetablesQuiz question: What do the dietary supplement Beano, Horizon Organic Lactose-Free milks, Shiloh Farms Sprouted Whole Wheat Pretzels and certain acrylamide-reducing ingredients have in common? They all use enzymes to help produce safer foods or help consumers with improved digestive processes resulting in enhanced nutrition and/or digestive comfort.

Sales of digestive enzyme supplements have steadily increased since 2009, according to Nutrition Business Journal. Beano and similar products contain the enzyme alpha-galactosidase, which hydrolyzes polysaccharide and oligosaccharide fibers into more easily digestible sugars in foods such as legumes (e.g., peanuts, beans) and cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts). Several studies have shown alpha-galactosidase supplements to significantly reduce intestinal distress -- including a 2013 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel group study with 52 pediatric patients.

Another enzyme, lactase, helps consumers who cannot adequately digest lactose due to a deficiency in the enzyme lactase-phlorizin hydrolase (LPH). It is generally believed that this deficiency is actually the norm, while a genetic mutation allows certain populations to produce LPH into adulthood, a happy condition called lactase persistence.

Lactase persistence varies greatly around the world. More than 90 percent of some Scandinavian populations have this ability. One study found 63 percent of people in northern India showed lactase persistence but only 23 percent of those further south or east in that country. The researchers found the rate of lactase persistence in Africa “patchy.” While Africans are generally considered lactose intolerant, 64 percent of one group in Sudan was found to be lactase persistence. A Cornell University study theorized that people with ancestors who could safely rely on dairy herds for essential nutrients developed genes allowing their descendants to digest milk into adulthood.

Today, lactase is sold as a supplement and is added to dairy products to “pre-digest” lactose. These products are good for the dairy industry in that they help keep its customers, notes Daniel Best, principal with Best Vantage Inc. As people age, lactose intolerance often develops, a frustrating situation for dairy food lovers.

A small but growing number of products rely on enzymes created during sprouting to release nutrients for greater bioavailability. Those include Sprouted Grain Ezekial 4:9 Breads by Food for Life, Sprouted Whole Wheat Pretzels by Shiloh Farms, Sprouted Trail Mixes by Living and Honey Mustard Seasoned Sprouted Lentils by The Perfect Snack.

The University of California-Davis Center for Health and Nutrition Research, while questioning whether it makes a significant difference nutritionally, did note that sprouted grains can be slightly higher in certain nutrients such as vitamin C and carotenoids and may have higher-quality protein. Sprouting also increased enzymatic activities such as that of phytase and amylase. Phytase breaks down mineral-binding phytate, thus making certain minerals more available.

While not directly related to digestive health, the food industry is looking at another enzyme to reduce acrylamide formation. Acrylamide has a suspected link to cancer and can be found in traditional foods such as baked goods, fried snacks and roasted coffee. The amino acid asparagine is one precursor to acrylamide.

Asparaginase, a commercially offered enzyme, prevents acrylamide formation. One study investigated the addition of 100 and 500 enzyme units of asparaginase per kg of flour in a classical fried dough pastry. At both levels, 96-97 percent of the asparagine in the dough was converted to aspartic acid, which “very efficiently reduced” the acrylamide level up to 90 percent.

Unquestionably, more sophisticated and useful enzymes will be developed for the consumers … and the food processing industry.