A Buyer’s Guide to Enzymes

Introduction – Enzymes are used in a wide range of industries: from infant nutrition to pet food, dairy products to milk alternatives, meat tenderizing to plant-based proteins, bakery products to dietary supplements. As the number of applications continues to grow and become more specialized, selecting the appropriate enzyme is critical.

There are numerous enzymes available from many suppliers, which can make the selection process challenging. However, with a basic understanding of the differences between enzymes and suppliers, the process becomes much easier.

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What are enzymes?

Enzymes are proteins that act as cost-effective catalysts in reactions. Various enzymes from animals, plants, and bacteria are approved for use in the food industry. These enzymes help to break down food and other molecules into smaller components that the body can use for energy, growth, and repair.

In nature, each enzyme catalyzes a specific type of reaction. This specificity makes enzymes very useful in commercial applications. For example, enzymes can be used to produce biofuels, food additives, and pharmaceuticals.

Enzymes are not living organisms but are functional proteins derived from living organisms. Commercially available enzymes are produced by carefully isolating and extracting enzymes from plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi.

Important Buying Criteria

Purchasing agents often need to make buying choices for enzymes without enough information from the research or marketing departments. For example, they may be told to “buy X enzyme for the best price” without any other information.

It is like telling a purchasing agent to “go buy a horse” or “go buy a car.” There is not enough information to know what to buy. The buyer could buy a racehorse or a broken-down nag. They could buy a new Corvette or a rust bucket. In both cases, the buyer has done what was requested but may not have selected the best option for the company’s needs.

There are many important criteria to consider when selecting or purchasing enzymes. Understanding these criteria is essential to help select the appropriate enzyme for the company’s needs and to compare costs from various suppliers.

Categories of Enzymes

Enzymes are classified by the type of reaction they catalyze. Most food enzymes are hydrolases, which are enzymes that break down complex molecules into smaller ones by adding water. Hydrolases are further divided into more specific categories, including:

  • Carbohydrases: Break down carbohydrates into sugars and dextrins
  • Proteases: Break down proteins into smaller protein fragments and amino acids
  • Lipases: Break down lipids (fats and oils) into glycerol and fatty acids
  • Cellulases: Break down cellulose, a major component of plant cell walls
  • Pectinases: Break down pectin, a substance that helps to hold plant cells together
  • Xylanases: Break down xylan, a component of hemicellulose, another major component of plant cell walls
  • Hemicellulases: Break down hemicellulose

Enzyme Activity

Enzyme activity is the most important information that a purchasing agent needs to know when selecting an enzyme. Enzymes are always sold based on their potency, which measures how much enzyme is needed to accomplish a specific reaction within a specified time.

For example, one gram of lactase testing 1000 FCC lactase units per gram may convert 99% of the lactose in one liter of milk at a specific temperature within 24 hours. Lactase testing 10,000 FCC units per gram would only require one-tenth of a gram to do the same job. Lactase testing 100,000 FCC units per gram would only require one one-hundredth of a gram to do the same job.

If the price of the 100,000 u/g lactase is less than 100 times that of the 1000 FCC lactase, then the concentrated lactase is the better value.

Enzyme activity may not be stated in the same units from company to company. For instance, an alkaline protease from one company testing 2.4 AU/g is considered equivalent to an alkaline protease from another company sold based on the activity of 560,000 DU/g.

It is important to compare enzymes based on the same units of activity. This means comparing enzymes sold based on the same units of weight (grams or kilograms) and volume (liters or milliliters). If the enzymes are sold based on different units, you may pay more for less enzyme.

In the food supplement industry, there is a move towards using the assays published in the Food Chemicals Codex to express enzyme activity. This will make it easier for consumers to understand the enzyme dose in relation to their particular needs and for purchasing agents to make direct comparisons between vendors.

For example, papain is sold by the following activities: TU (tyrosine units), MCU (milk clot units), or FCC. Bromelain is sold by BTU (bromelain tyrosine units), MCU (milk clot units), CDU (casein digestion units), GDU (gelatin digestion units), and FCC. To know what you are buying, you must have the same enzyme tested by the same assay method.

While there are some general rules of thumb for selecting enzymes based on activity, it is important to note that these rules are no guarantee. The best way to ensure that you get the right enzyme for your needs is to contact your supplier and ask them to provide you with the assay method used to determine enzyme activity.

Quality Assurance of the Enzyme

When selecting an enzyme supplier, it is important to consider how they ensure the quality of their products. Do they conduct their own testing on most or all of the important criteria, or do they rely on third-party tests or previous certificates of analysis? It is also important to know when the enzyme’s activity was tested, who tested it, and if all the other tests, such as microbiological tests, were completed by the same company on your specific shipment.

Labeling the Enzyme of the Final Product

As the purchasing agent, you also need to know how the enzyme will be used in the final product and how it will be labeled. Is the company making a premium product with accurate information on the label for the consumer? Or is the enzyme being used as window dressing?

Unfortunately, there is no requirement to list the enzyme activity on the label. This means that a company selling a tablet with 500 mg of papain testing 50,000 FCC units/mg must compete with a company selling a tablet with 500 mg of papain testing 2,000 FCC units/mg. Both companies can claim that their product contains papain, even though the low activity product may contain only 1 part 50,000 FCC papain to 24 parts filler. Unless the activity is put on the label, the consumer cannot determine whether they are being misled.

Enzymes are also often added to beverages. If a premium product is to be produced, the amount of enzyme and the activity of the enzyme per dose should be on the label. If the enzyme is simply being used to match a label ingredient statement, then what activity is used makes no difference. One gram of low-activity enzyme in a ton of final product will still allow the enzyme to be included on the label.

Standardizing Agents

Enzymes are manufactured to meet various activities. To achieve the desired activity level, a concentrated product is often diluted with a standardizing agent. Examples of standardizing agents include salt, dextrose, and maltodextrin. It is important to select a standardizing agent that is compatible with the finished product.

Other Certification Issues

As with all food ingredients, enzymes must be manufactured and processed under government guidelines. In the United States, enzymes for food applications are manufactured to meet the specifications outlined in the Food Chemicals Codex (FCC). There are other grades that meet stricter guidelines for specific applications, such as USP grade (U.S. Pharmacopeia) for pharmaceutical and related applications. Another important consideration is whether the product needs to be Kosher and/or Halal certified. Most enzymes can be certified, but some cannot due to their origin or standardizing agent. Generally, manufacturing an enzyme to meet stricter guidelines will increase the cost of the product.

Handling and Safety

Enzymes are proteins; as with all proteins, people can have allergic reactions when exposed to them. Most enzymes are sold in a dry form, which can lead to airborne contamination and exposure. Workers need to be aware of proper handling techniques.

If exposure is a concern based on the specific manufacturing environment, preparations are available that are either in liquid form or specially processed to minimize dust. Consult with your enzyme vendor to help identify potential risks and develop handling practices and techniques to reduce worker exposure to airborne proteins (including enzymes) and protein aerosols.

Other Resources

The Enzyme Technical Association (ETA) has published booklets on the safe handling of enzymes and suggested guidelines for enzyme use in the dietary supplement industry. This information can be downloaded directly from their website at https://www.etai.org/.

The ETA also offers a book titled “Enzymes: A Practical Guide for the Food Industry,” published by Eagan Press, St. Paul, MN. Both of these resources can be helpful for learning more about enzymes and how to use them safely and effectively.


Selecting the appropriate enzyme is critical to the success of a manufacturer, both from a performance and cost-effectiveness perspective. Important factors must be considered when selecting and purchasing enzymes, including the specific application, desired results, enzyme activity, compatibility with other ingredients, and handling and storage requirements. It is important that technical and purchasing personnel maintain open communication with the enzyme supplier, who can assist in the selection process.

For additional information and samples, please contact us at info@enzymedevelopment.com or contact your salesperson.

© Enzyme Development Corporation, October 2023