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EUFIC ÁTTEKINTÉS 06/2006

Food without enzymes?

A balanced diet, a healthy body and a clean environment - the essentials for life. Enzymes are indispensable for our food supply, they enable the body to function and they contribute to a clean environment.

Life without enzymes is impossible!

What are enzymes? How do they work? Which foods contain enzymes? What do enzymes do in our bodies? Why are they good for the environment?

This leaflet has the answers.

Enzymes, what are they?

Enzymes work 24 hours a day, facilitating all the processes essential to life in all organisms: plants, animals, humans and micro-organisms. Enzymes can best be described as tools. For example, they see to it that food is converted into energy and that the energy is stored until it is needed. Once the energy is needed, for the growing of the organism for instance, enzymes organize and control its release. Enzymes also construct the building blocks needed for growth and break down harmful substances that may enter living organisms. In short: enzymes are nature's workforce. Without them life is impossible!

Enzymes are proteins, just like those in the foods we eat every day. They are perfectly geared to their task. They are:

Specific

Each enzyme has its own task and masters it perfectly. Thus, millions of different enzymes can be found throughout nature.

Efficient

Enzymes work fast - some of them perform their task up to 5 million times a minute.

Economical and Clean

Enzymes are completely biodegradable and generally work under mild circumstances and at moderate temperatures. Because of this, enzymes are environmentally sound - they use little energy and produce little waste.

Natures workforce

The versatility of enzymes can be seen at work in the ripening of an apple. The emergence of the attractive and inviting blush on the skin of the apple, the tempting fragrance and the sweet-sour taste of the ripe fruit are all the work of the enzymes present in the fruit. Like a well-tuned and well-directed orchestra, the different enzymes work together to create a masterpiece just waiting to be eaten.

At work in our bodies

A look in the mirror will show you a very efficient enzyme producer - your own body. To digest our food for instance, our body produces a wide array of enzymes.

Digestion starts in the mouth

Saliva contains enzymes which break down starch. This becomes clear when we eat bread. While we chew on bread, enzymes in our saliva break down the starch in the bread into sugars. That is why bread that has been chewed on for a while starts to taste sweet. Next, the enzymes in our stomach start the digestion of proteins, splitting the long protein chains into smaller portions. The last step in the process of protein digestion is completed in the intestines. The fragments of protein are broken down into building blocks that are incorporated into the body. Other specialized enzymes break down fats and carbohydrates through a similar process, thanks to which these nutrients can be absorbed and used in the body.

Vital in food production

Without realizing it, man has been using enzymes to produce, preserve and improve food since ancient times. Cheese, wine, beer and soy sauce are all produced using enzymes.

Enzymes are also extremely important in the production of apple juice. The same enzymes that cause the apple to soften at the end of the ripening process are now used in the production of apple juice. As a result, less energy is needed for the extraction process and more juice can be extracted.

And neither should the major role that enzymes play in the process of bread production be forgotten. In the past the quality of bread showed remarkable differences from one harvest to the next. Research revealed that, depending on the weather during the growing season, enzyme activity in wheat flour could be insufficient to produce a good bread. Yet bread of a consistent quality is needed day after day. That is why nowadays the level of the enzyme activity in wheat flour is adjusted by adding enzymes that are produced by micro-organisms. In this way it is possible to fulfil consumer demand for good leavened bread.

Technology goes on

Clearly, enzymes come from numerous sources. Some of them have been known of for centuries, like the enzymes that are produced by micro-organisms as in the earlier example of bread. Nevertheless enzyme producers are always looking for ways to improve the quality of enzymes and also to find new uses. Organisms that function under extreme circumstances, like high temperatures in hot water springs and high pressure in deep sea, provide opportunities to obtain enzymes that are able to work under these circumstances. The techniques developed by modern biotechnology are also very useful.

Some important enzymes are scarce or difficult to obtain. With the aid of modern biotechnology other organisms that are easier to handle can be used to produce these same enzymes. Enzyme-producing organisms can be stimulated to produce greater quantities. And it is also possible to modify enzymes in such a way that they work better or faster. The results are often a higher yield, more economical use of energy and less waste.

Take the production of cheese for instance. An important step in this process involves the curdling of milk with the aid of the enzyme chymosin. This enzyme is usually extracted from the stomachs of calves. Yet today this can be done in a different way. Thanks to modern biotechnology we no longer need to use calves. The genetic material that is responsible for the production of chymosin is transferred from a calf to a yeast. Thus the yeast takes over the production of chymosin from the calf as it were.

Sometimes the use of enzymes obtained with the aid of modern biotechnology can help to solve environmental problems - as in the case of phosphate. Although a common nutrient in food, animal feed and the soil, too high a level of phosphate in manure contributes to pollution. High levels of phosphate in manure are caused by the fact that pigs are unable to absorb phosphate completely. Nowadays biotechnology is able to produce an enzyme that makes phosphate more easily absorbable. Adding this enzyme to feed enables the animals to take in more of the phosphate from the feed. This results in decreased levels of phosphate in the dung and less pollution of the environment.

Bound to be safe

All foods and beverages are monitored by the government in order to ensure that they are safe. Each and every food has to comply with a set of rules and regulations. This also applies to products that contain enzymes or products that are made with the aid of enzymes.

Apart from the involvement on the part of the government, the industry itself is primarily responsible for ensuring that the products it sells are safe. Government and industry cooperate closely to guarantee the safety of the food the consumer buys.

Contributing to a clean environment

The use of enzymes is environmentally sound. Enzymes are

Completely biodegradable

Enzymes are proteins. These are natural substances that are present in abundance everywhere. Proteins are built up and broken down incessantly by all living organisms. For this reason enzymes are completely biodegradable.

Pollution Reducers

Enzymes often represent a good alternative to the use of chemical substances. In the breakdown of starch into sugars for instance. In the past, starch had to be cooked with acids. This took a lot of energy and produced a lot of waste. Today, specific starch-splitting enzymes that help to produce the exact substances we are after are used in the production of sugars. These enzymes work at room temperature and do not produce waste. Therefore, they create far less pollution for the environment.

As enzymes generally work at low temperatures, they require little energy. From the sixties onwards, enzymes have been an important ingredient in numerous detergents used in every household. They enable us to do our laundry at lower temperatures. This way, enzymes not only clean things, they also contribute to a cleaner environment.

The facts once again, enzymes are:

  • Specialized tools. They are specific, efficient, economical and clean.
  • Present throughout nature. They are an indispensable element in every living organism.
  • Present in abundance in our bodies. Enzymes make our life processes, such as the digestion of our food, possible.
  • The driving force behind countless production processes. The production of a huge number of foods and ingredients is inconceivable without enzymes.
  • Subject to constant improvement. Enzyme producers are constantly looking for ways to improve the use of enzymes. The techniques developed by modern biotechnology are a great aid in this.
  • Safe. The safety of our food is assured by strict statutory requirements.
  • Environmentally sound. They save energy, produce little waste and are completely biodegradable.
AZ EUFIC-RÓL
Az Európai Élelmiszer Információs Bizottság (EUFIC) egy olyan non-profit szervezet, amely az élelmiszerbiztonság és –minőség, valamint az egészség és táplálkozás kapcsolatáról nyújt tudományon alapuló információkat a médiának, egészség- és táplálkozásügyi szakembereknek, oktatóknak, valamint a közvéleményt formáló személyeknek közérthető formában.

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