Enzyme potency can cause confusion

Enzyme potency can cause confusion

The potency of enzymes is not measured in the same way as other nutritional supplements. The determining factor of an enzyme product's potency is the effect it has on proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Enzyme expert Tom Bohager explains.


The method of measuring enzyme potency differs from what most people are accustomed to. It is not quantity of the ingredient that counts, but rather the quantity of food that an enzyme can break down or digest that determines an enzyme's potency. For example, when comparing two vitamin-C products, the average consumer will typically compare the price and number of mg per tablet of one vitamin-C product with another. When it comes to enzymes, however, it is not quite as simple.

Below is a copy of the supplement-facts box from a digestive-enzyme product, Digest Gold, manufactured by Enzymedica. Observe how the ingredients are measured.

Supplement facts



Amylase Thera-blend


Beta Glucanase


Cellulase Thera-blend








L Acidophilus

250 million CFU



Lipase Thera-blend



200DP Protease Pectinase







In this example, the name of the enzyme is listed on the left and measurement of activity is listed on the right, followed by two to four letters. The word Thera-blend, which follows the name of four of the enzymes, is Enzymedica's way of indicating that more than one of that type of enzyme is used.

What initially confuses many customers are the letters shown after the measurement of activity. On the nutritional information panel, amylase has 23,000DU, while protease has 80,000HUT. These letters are abbreviations for assays used to measure the 'active units' of the enzyme. DU stands for dextrinizing units, while HUT is an abbreviation for hemoglobin units in a tyrosine base. The reason this is necessary is because enzymes are not measured by weight, and thus a measurement in mg or international units (IU) would not describe the true potency of the product.

Following are three key factors to consider when determining product potency.

Active units are the most commonly used measurement to determine potency because they identify how active the enzyme is. An 'active unit' is a measurement that describes how much of a given food an enzyme has the potential to break down. For example, 1,000 active units of one type of lipase (the enzyme that digests fats) have the potential to release 1,000 bonds of essential fatty acids from olive oil per minute. When the lab technician tests the enzyme for its activity, however, she does so in a controlled environment in which the temperature and pH are closely regulated. To measure the activity of the lipase mentioned above, a lab technician will expose a measured amount of the enzyme to a fat (olive oil), in a pH of 7.0 at a temperature of 86 degrees to determine its active units. The measurement would tell you that the lipase has the ability to liberate 1,000 bonds of fatty acids per minute, and it will be labelled 1,000FCCFIP on the bottle. However, since the enzyme is measured using one type of fat in a very specific pH at a set temperature, the measurement is only an approximation of its potential to digest other types of fats in other pH levels or temperatures.

In the test mentioned above, one of the key factors in determining the potency of an enzyme is the pH in which the enzyme was tested. The pH is simply a measurement of acidity and alkalinity — the higher the number, the more alkaline the substance and conversely, the lower the number, the more acidic the substance. On a scale, pH values range from 0 to 14 with seven as the neutral. The pH range of an enzyme is an important measure of potency because it defines how long the enzyme will work in the body.

All enzymes have an optimal pH and a pH range. When it comes to determining the potency of a product, it helps to know that one of the manufacturer's considerations was the pH in which the enzyme works best. This is important, because different portions of the body function at varying pH levels. For instance, stomach pH averages between two and three (very acidic), while the small intestine is alkaline, with a pH of eight. The blood remains slightly alkaline at just more than seven on the pH scale. So, if an enzyme product contains a protease that has an optimal pH of three, it will work well at digesting protein in the acid environment of the stomach, but may not work at all in the alkaline environment of the small intestine or in the blood.

The third consideration is the number of enzymes used per category. Protease, lipase, amylase and cellulase are actually categories of enzymes. Not all proteases can digest all proteins, nor can all lipases digest all fats. So the more proteases in a protease blend, the more protein it will break down. A combination of enzymes within categories (multiple proteases, lipases, amylases or cellulases) will digest or break down more protein, fat, carbohydrates and fibre, respectively. Blending also increases the range of pH, which increases its potency when compared to a single enzyme.

Obviously, there is a lot to the science of enzyme potency. Because of this, it may be difficult for the consumer to be certain of the value and efficacy when purchasing enzyme products. Likewise, few companies have the expertise needed to produce properly formulated enzyme products that truly perform as intended.

How much actual protein, fat and carbohydrates can enzymes digest? This is a complicated question. Note that the breakdown of every protein, carbohydrate and fat is unique to a particular food:

  • 20,000HUT of protease can break down 225g of dairy protein in one hour. The breakdown of beef or soy is different.
  • 30,000DU of amylase can break down 100g of potato starch in one hour. The starch found in a carrot is different.
  • 1,000FCCFIP of lipase can break down 5g of vegetable oil in one minute.

A word about value
When determining value, consumers will compare labels. Chances are the only useful information to be found will be the active units listed. Because the blending of enzymes is so critical to potency, one cannot assume that the higher the active units, the better the value. As an illustration, one product that contains multiple enzyme blends may contain 80,000HUTs of protease, whereas a competing product with one enzyme type may list 100,000HUTs. Despite the difference in active units, the 80,000HUT product will be more potent because the blended product will work longer in the body and ultimately break more bonds than the other product. Which is a better value? In this example, the one with fewer active units, but more enzymes, would be a better value!

Tom Bohager is the founder of enzyme-supplements manufacturer Enzymedica (www.enzymedica.com). Excerpted from his latest book, Everything You Need to Know About Enzymes(Greenleaf Book Group, 2008).
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