What are Enzymes?

enzymesAll biological reactions within human cells depend on enzymes—they are necessary to sustain life. They are not live organisms; they are actually proteins—long chains of amino acids held together by peptide bonds. All enzymes are proteins, but not all proteins are enzymes.

Enzymes are catalysts, which means they accelerate reactions in the body without being changed themselves in the process. Enzymes are very specific to what they catalyze. Each type of enzyme facilitates a different process in the body. They are highly efficient, as small amounts yield significant output. In fact, they may accelerate reactions by factors of a million or even more.

The human body produces many enzymes to facilitate digestion. Starting in the mouth, enzymes in the saliva begin the digestion process, and as the food we consume travels through the digestive tract, it is broken down by enzymes in the stomach, pancreas and finally the intestines. Enzymes are also naturally present in the actual food that we consume, and serve to help break down those specific foods.


Digestive Enzymes

The role of digestive enzymes is to break down food-derived fats, carbohydrates, and proteins into smaller substances that our bodies can use. Because enzymes are specific to what reactions they will catalyze, there are different types of enzymes that facilitate the digestion of the various components of our food.

Carbohydrases is the category of enzymes that break down carbohydrates and fibers (oligosaccharides) into simple sugars. One of the most popular carbohydrase enzymes is alpha-galactosidase. It helps digest those carbs found in beans, such as raffinose and stachyose, that commonly cause gas. Lactase is another well-known carbohydrase enzyme; it converts lactose (milk sugar) into its component sugars (glucose and galactose) supporting digestion of dairy products for those with lactose intolerance. Another interesting carbohydrase enzyme is cellulose, because the body doesn’t produce this enzyme at all; this is an enzyme that breaks down the cell wall of plants, releasing the nutrients for the body to absorb. There are several other carbohydrases that target specific types of carbohydrates to digest. A more comprehensive list can be found on this list of carbohydrase enzyme functions.

Proteases are enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, and are also referred to as proteolytic enzymes. These enzymes are used to maximize digestion of proteins for improved nutrient uptake and reduced likelihood of the proteins causing an immune response that’s associated with certain food sensitivities. For example, gluten is a protein that many individuals have trouble tolerating. Enzymes that break down the peptide bonds of the gluten molecule minimize the digestive discomfort that can result from gluten consumption. Similarly, the whey protein found in dairy products and many sports supplement is a large protein that must be broken down in order to be absorbed and used by the body. Protease enzymes break down these large protein molecules so that the beneficial amino acids can be absorbed, and the smaller peptides will not cause digestive discomfort. There are several other proteases that target specific types of proteins to digest. A more comprehensive list can be found on this list of protease enzyme functions.

Lipases are enzymes that digest fats (lipids) into fatty acids and glycerol. Lipases break down triglycerides and improve fat utilization, supporting gall bladder function. Other types of hydrolytic enzymes provide health benefits; catalase is a potent antioxidant, and phytase helps with the absorption of minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium. For more detailed information, see this comprehensive list of enzymes and their functions.

Systemic Enzymes

In addition to digestion, there are enzymes that provide benefits to other body systems. These systemic enzymes break down proteins to improve body functions such as blood flow and inflammatory response. The most important thing that systemic proteolytic enzymes do is to break down excess fibrin in your circulatory system and in other connective tissue, such as your muscles. These enzymes bring nutrients and oxygen-rich blood that remove the metabolic waste produced by inflammation and excess fibrin. Nattokinase and serratiopeptidase are two such enzymes that are commonly used to support joint and heart health. The plant-based enzymes bromelain and papain are also widely used for systemic applications.

Why are Supplemental Enzymes Necessary?

Although the body produces its own digestive enzymes, it may not be enough. Anyone with lactose intolerance is likely not producing enough of the lactase enzyme to adequately digest dairy products. Plus, enzyme production decreases with age. This is often why so many people are not able to enjoy many of the same foods that they did when they were younger. In addition, during cooking and processing, the natural enzymes present in raw foods are denatured. There are few people that adhere to a mainly raw food diet. And even in the case of a raw-food, vegan diet, the body doesn’t produce the enzyme cellulase at all. This is an enzyme that breaks down the cell wall of plants, releasing the nutrients for the body to absorb. Those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are likely missing out on key nutrients from the plant-based foods they’re eating, and would most certainly benefit from an enzyme supplement.

Measuring Enzyme Activity

It’s important to understand that the potency of enzymes is not measured in the same way as other nutritional supplements. Enzymes are not measured by weight, so the number of milligrams of a product would not describe the true potency. Low potency enzymes may weigh as much as those with high potency, and fillers may add to the weight but not the effectiveness of an enzyme supplement. The determining factor of an enzyme product’s potency is its “activity” – the effect it has on proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Activity units” are the most commonly used measurement to determine potency because they identify how active the enzyme is. Enzyme activity is determined by various assays (test methods) that are performed under specific conditions.

Different enzymes use different units of measurement to determine potency. The national standards (testing methodologies) for determining enzyme potency are defined in the Food Chemical Codex (FCC).

Enzyme Functions


  • Helps digest gas promoting carbohydrates, such as raffinose, and stachyose
  • Especially helpful with cruciferous vegetables and legumes
  • Measured in FCC GalU (Galactosidase Units)
  • Hydrolyzes carbohydrates, such as starch and glycogen
  • Measured in FCC DU (Dextrinizing Units)
  • Breaks down polysaccharides known as beta D-glucans which are associated with grains, such as barley, oats, and wheat
  • Measured in FCC BGU (Betaglucanase Units)
  • Degrades cellulose and cellulose derivatives producing smaller polysaccharides and glucose
  • Helps free nutrients in both fruits and vegetables
  • Measured in FCC CU (Cellulase Units)
  • Degrades maltose to glucose
  • Measured in DP (Degrees of Diastatic Power)
  • Digests soluble fibers seen in plant cell walls
  • Used to release nutrients bound in the cellular structure of fruits and vegetables
  • Measured in FCC HCU (Hemicellulase Units)
  • Splits sucrose into its component sugars, glucose and fructose, so they can be utilized
  • Measured in FCC SU (Sumner Units)
  • Converts lactose (milk sugar) into its component sugars, glucose and galactose
  • Supports digestion of dairy products for those with lactose intolerance
  • Measured in FCC ALU (Lactase Units)
  • Degrades carbohydrates, such as pectin, found in many fruits and vegetables
  • Measured in AJDU
  • A type of Hemicellulase which specifically degrades the xylose-containing polymers found in wheat, oats and barley
  • Measured in XU (Xylanase Units)


  • Breaks down triglycerides and improves fat utilization
  • Supports gallbladder function
  • Measured in FCC FIP


  • Degrades many types of proteins into smaller components
  • Supports normal inflammatory response
  • Measured in FCC PU
  • Hydrolyzes proteins preferentially releasing the aromatic amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine
  • Supports normal inflammatory response
  • Measured in USP Units
  • Hydrolyzes fibrin
  • Used to improve blood circulation
  • Measured in FU (Fibrin units)
  • Breaks down protein
  • Supports normal inflammatory response
  • Measured in FCC PU (Papain Units)
  • Releases amino acids from proteins and polypeptides
  • Measured in FCC HUT units
  • Breaks down proteins into smaller polypeptide fragments and amino acids
  • Used to improve digestion of proteins for improved nutrition and to reduce allergenicity of the proteins
  • Measured in FCC HUT (Hemoglobin Units in a Tyrosine Base)
  • Degrades certain proteins associated with inflammation
  • Measured in SPU units
  • Hydrolysis of proteins with preferential release of lysine and arginine
  • Along with chymotrypsin, the proteolytic enzyme produced by the pancreas gland to digest dietary proteins

Related Articles

How Enzyme Supplements Can Aid FODMAP Sensitivities

Strong links have been found between foods that are FODMAPs – which stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols – and gastric upset, including… Read More

Digestible Podcast: Supplemental Enzymes and The Ecosystem of Gut Health

  The global digestive enzyme industry is estimated to be worth $1.2 billion by the year 2026. John Davidson, Director of Education and Innovation, Deerland… Read More

When to Take Digestive Enzymes: Just as Important as Which You Take

Enzymes play an essential role in physiological processes throughout the body. Natural digestive enzymes, such as lipase, amylase, and protease, aid in breaking down fats,… Read More

It Takes Two: Probiotics and Enzymes for Digestive Balance

Some people believe that a life well lived is a life that has been in balance. Physically, good health is called “homeostasis,” which primarily means… Read More

Have a (Healthy) Heart!

February is national heart health awareness month, and the media has done a very effective job of delivering key messages to adult Americans about how… Read More

How to Manage Inadvertent Exposure to Gluten

Millions of people around the world suffer from allergies or intolerance to gluten. To avoid a potentially serious reaction, many of these individuals avoid gluten… Read More

Why 2018 Is the Year to Get Your Digestive Tract Back on Track

You may be surprised to learn that your body is jam packed with trillions of bacteria. But don’t worry, most of these bacteria in your… Read More

Branded Ingredients Build Trust and Cleaner Labels

Manufacturers of dietary supplements can win consumer interest and trust by making use of branded ingredients whenever possible. A branded ingredient has a unique identity… Read More

Don’t Underestimate the Power of the Brand

You’re investing in a branded ingredient – use it to its fullest! Take a look at this picture: If you are at a party and… Read More

Navigating FODMAPs

It appears that every few years brings a new food term. Typically, this results from new scientific understanding (or validation) of how foods affect the… Read More

D3 Packaging System Safeguards Supplement Quality

As more Americans turn to probiotics and enzymes to reap their benefits of promoting better digestive and immune health, it’s important that manufacturers provide supplements… Read More

Systemic Enzymes: A Powerful Catalyst for Optimal Overall Health

Every cell in the human body uses enzymes for building, maintenance and repair. Although the human body naturally produces many enzymes, their production may dwindle… Read More

Enzymes and Probiotics For Immune Health

The intestines contain more immune cells than the rest of the entire human body. In many cases, immune dysfunction begins with a “failure to communicate”… Read More