Food breaks down into small particles for the body to use for all of its functions.
Digestive enzymes can assist the body in breaking down food. This article will help you understand digestive enzyme product labels so that you can pick the best one to support you!
Role of Enzymes in Digestion
Digestive enzymes help break down food into tiny bits to prepare for nutrient absorption in the intestines. .
Chewing, also known as mastication, begins the digestive process. Food physically breaks down into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces break down further on a microscopic level by the work of digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are made primarily by the pancreas, but are also released in the saliva and stomach during the initial phases of digestion.
Different enzymes break down different types of foods: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
- Amylases are enzymes that break down carbohydrates.
- Proteases are enzymes that break down proteins.
- Lipases are enzymes that break down fats (1).
When to Consider Taking Digestive Enzymes
If gastrointestinal discomfort is a frequent and troublesome part of your life, then taking supplemental digestive enzymes may provide relief.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is an umbrella term for diseases that reduce pancreatic enzyme function and is the primary reason people may use enzymes. Examples include pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, cystic fibrosis, or diabetes (1). Prior abdominal surgery can also decrease digestive enzyme production. Other conditions like lactose intolerance and gut dysbiosis decrease enzyme production and may also prompt you to consider using an external source (1).
Bloating, gas, belching, flatulence, stomach pain, diarrhea, and abdominal distension can be signs of impaired digestion. Talk with your doctor about your symptoms to rule out any disease process that may be affecting the production or release of enzymes from your pancreas.
Going to the store to purchase a digestive enzyme supplement can be an overwhelming task.
Enzyme sourcing, dosing, and additives differ among brands. Knowing more about the enzyme sources, dosing, and timing can help you compare labels and choose the right supplement for you.
Over-the-Counter v. Prescription
Both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription-based digestive enzymes are available.
Prescription digestive enzymes are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration,while OTC supplements are not. Prescription digestive enzymes are tested by a third party to verify product quality and fair labeling. Talk with your doctor about whether a prescription digestive enzyme is right for you.
Each digestive enzyme source has certain advantages.
Enzymes can come from animals (cattle or pig), plants (pineapple or papaya), or microbes (fungi like Aspergillus oryzae and Rhizopus arrhizus) (2). Supplements with a combination of animal, plant, and fungal enzymes may be more effective than any one source taken alone (2).
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, look for fungal and plant based enzyme supplements. Check the label carefully for words to avoid like bovine, meaning cattle, or porcine (aka hog). Look for a supplement label that specifically says “vegetarian” or “vegan” to avoid animal based products.
Certain enzymes deactivate if the environment’s pH is not optimal (1).
Fungal enzymes work in a wider range of pH levels because they can withstand high acidity. This is beneficial because acidity levels change throughout the digestive tract (1). Fungal enzymes remain effective at any pH.
Bromelain, an enzyme in pineapple, or papain, an enzyme in papaya, may be added to enzyme preparations to help break down proteins (2). Plant based enzymes work in a wider range of acidity levels (4.5-9.8 pH) than animal enzymes. This means that they can begin to break down protein in the acidic stomach while animal proteases can not (2).
Animal based enzymes do not survive low stomach acid levels unless they are in a protected capsule (1). If purchasing animal based enzymes, look for the phrase, “enteric coated capsules” on the label. This means that the enzymes inside the capsule will survive contact with stomach acid to reach digestion in the small intestine.
Reading and interpreting digestive enzyme labels can be difficult.
The label lists a wide variety of enzymes like amylase, cellulase, lipase, and protease. Labels also list different units of measurement listed like DU, CU, LU, and HUT. This may lead to mass confusion when scanning a product you find at the health food store.
The units for measuring enzymes are called activity units and are set by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) using the Food Chemical Codex (FCC). Rather than being measured by weight, these activity units tell us how well an enzyme does its job of breaking down nutrients. They provide a standardized measurement so that multiple enzyme supplements can be compared. When comparing two supplements, choose the one with higher activity units per serving.
While most supplements are measured by the FCC units of DU, CU, LU, HUT, etc., some list USP units. If you are comparing two enzymes that have different units of measurement, use the conversions below for one of the FCC units:
- HUT = 6.5 USP
- DU = 48 USP
- FIP = 1 USP (3)
More Buying Tips
Knowing which foods cause you problems may also help you choose a digestive enzyme.
Symptoms of poor protein digestion include dry hair, hair loss, or swelling. Poor fat digestion includes symptoms like light colored, floating stools, or a layer of film in the toilet. Poor digestion of carbohydrates, or sugars, can include bloating, gas, or diarrhea. For many people, fat maldigestion happens years before protein and carbohydrate maldigestion (4).
The dose of amylase, protease, and lipase vary among supplements. When choosing between two supplements, if carbohydrate digestion is your concern, choose the supplement with more active units of amylase. If protein digestion if your concern, choose the supplements with more active proteases. If fat digestive is causing your digestive distress, then choose the supplements with more lipase activity units.
Read and follow the directions listed on the label or given by your doctor for dose and timing of the digestive enzyme capsules.
Many labels direct you to take the enzymes at meal time. The enzymes need to interact with food to aid digestion so taking them between meals will not ease digestive discomfort. Others may recommend a second dose during the meal when eating heavier meals or larger portions, as is often the case when eating out or at social events (4).
Most digestive enzyme supplements will contain a broad spectrum of enzymes to aid digestion of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These may be the best choice for general digestive discomfort.
Enzymes capable of aiding digestion of specific foods like vegetables, beans, and milk are also available. These may be the best choice for known enzyme deficiencies, like lactase. They may function as a stand-alone supplement, or may be added to a broad spectrum supplement.
Cellulase, for example, is a naturally occurring enzyme in plant foods that humans do not produce. It can be added to enzyme supplements to help breakdown plant foods.
Beano, a popular digestive enzyme product, contains an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase to help break down the sugars in foods like beans and certain vegetables.
Lactaid is another popular digestive enzyme that helps break down the lactose sugar in milk.
Some supplements contain specific gluten digesting proteases to break down proteins found in gluten.
Digestive enzyme labels also have information on additional ingredients composing the capsule or added for flavor.
You may see binding ingredients like cellulose, gellan gum, or gelatin.
Digestive enzymes are also available in chewable form. Chewable digestive enzymes cannot be enteric coated in a capsule. If choosing a chewable form, look for one that is fungal or plant based like this one. This is where you may also notice sweeteners like maltodextrin or fructose for improved taste.
Bile acid and betaine hydrochloric acid are sometimes added to digestive enzyme supplements.
Bile acids, often sourced from ox bile, help to promote the absorption of dietary fats which may be useful for people without a gallbladder (1). Use caution as too much bile can cause diarrhea.
Betaine hydrochloric acid helps digestion by increasing stomach acid. This may be important for people with low stomach acid as HCl is needed for proper enzyme function. Avoid supplements with added HCl if you have a history of stomach ulcer, gastritis, or esophagitis, as it can cause further irritation.
Digestive Enzyme Common Concerns
You may wonder if taking digestive enzymes decreases your body’s ability to produce enzymes or if it’s possible to take too many.
Taking digestive enzymes will not decrease your body’s own production of enzymes, but will simply aid digestion.
While no tolerable upper limit has been established, side effects may occur with extreme doses of digestive enzyme supplements. Unwanted effects may also be caused by an allergy to certain ingredients in the supplement (like pineapple, fungus, or hog) (2).
When comparing two different digestive enzymes, there are several key things to look for:
- Choose a supplement with a combination of plant (bromelain or papain) and microbe sourced enzymes if possible, like this one.
- Choose the supplement with the higher number of activity units based on your symptoms. For example, choose the product with the higher number of protease activity units if protein digestion is your main concern.
- Make sure both supplements use the same units so that you can correctly compare their activity. If not in the same units, a conversion may be necessary to accurately compare activity.
If you are vegetarian, be sure to look for plant based only enzyme preparations with a mix of amylase, protease, and lipase, like this one. Check the label for any animal derived products in the capsule coating.
Overall, purchasing digestive enzymes can be confusing, so if all else fails, talk to your doctor or Registered Dietitian for more specific guidance.