As interest in food intolerance grows, supplemental digestive enzymes are gaining traction with consumers. So what are these enzymes, exactly? Should you be taking them?

Enzymes are an essential part of a healthy digestive system and are naturally produced by the body. Many enzymes help accelerate the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and proteins into simple compounds that your body can absorb and burn for energy or use to repair tissue. There are several types of enzymes but most fall within three categories – proteases that break down protein, lipases that break down fat, and amylases that break down carbohydrates.

There are a handful of circumstances in which supplemental digestive enzymes offer a very clear benefit.

One of the most well known enzymes on the market is lactase, which is required to break down and absorb milk sugar. Many of us lose the ability to naturally produce lactase as we age into our twenties, making dairy products difficult to be comfortably digested. Rates of lactose intolerance are much higher among African Americans and those of Hispanic origin as compared to Caucasians. For dairy-loving folks with lactose intolerance, lactase enzyme supplements are widely available and effective—if taken at a sufficient dose along with dairy foods.

For those who adhere to “high-fiber” diets (e.g. vegetarians and vegans), alpha-galactosidase (e.g. Beano) helps to effectively relieve gas and bloating by breaking down certain non-digestible sugars found in many plant foods (particularly beans/legumes).

If you’re considering the use of specialty enzymes, it’s smart to look for products with an “enteric coating.” This helps ensure the enzymes within the capsule make it into your intestine, since many cannot survive stomach acid. Note – lactase enzymes easily survive stomach acid and do not need enteric coating.

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