The digestive system consists of many organs. These organs break down the food that we eat into simpler forms, such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins. The nutrients are then transported across the small intestine and into the bloodstream, where they provide energy for growth and repair.
Digestive enzymes are necessary for this process, as they break down molecules like fats, proteins, and carbs into even smaller molecules that can be easily absorbed.
Three Main Types of Digestive Enzymes
There are three main types of digestive enzymes:
- Proteases: Break down protein into small peptides and amino acids
- Lipases: Break down fat into three fatty acids plus a glycerol molecule
- Amylases: Break down carbs like starch into simple sugars
Enzymes are also made in the small intestine, including lactase, maltase, and sucrose. If the body is unable to make enough digestive enzymes, food molecules cannot be digested properly. This can lead to digestive disorders like lactose intolerance. Thus, eating foods that are high in natural digestive enzymes can help improve digestion.
Here are 12 foods that contain natural digestive enzymes:
Pineapples are a delicious tropical fruit rich in digestive enzymes.
In particular, pineapples contain a group of digestive enzymes called bromelain.
These enzymes are proteases, which break down protein into its building blocks, including amino acids. This aids the digestion and absorption of proteins.
Bromelain can be purchased in powdered form to help tenderize tough meats. It’s also widely available as a health supplement to help people who struggle to digest proteins.
A study on people with pancreatic insufficiency, a condition in which the pancreas cannot make enough digestive enzymes, found that taking bromelain combined with a pancreatic enzyme supplement improved digestion more than the enzyme supplement alone.
Papaya or pawpaw is another tropical fruit that is rich in digestive enzymes.
Like pineapples, papayas also contain proteases that help digest proteins. However, they contain a different group of proteases known as papain. Papain is also available as a meat tenderizer and digestive supplement.
Studies have shown that taking a papaya-based formula may help ease digestive symptoms of IBS, such as constipation and bloating. If you want to eat papayas, just make sure to eat them ripe and uncooked, as heat exposure can destroy their digestive enzymes. Also, unripe or semi-ripe papayas can be dangerous for pregnant women, as it may stimulate contractions.
Mangoes are a juicy tropical fruit that is popular in summer.
They contain the digestive enzymes amylases — a group of enzymes that break down carbs from starch (a complex carb) into sugars like glucose and maltose.
The amylase enzymes in mangoes become more active as the fruit ripens. This is why mangoes become sweeter as they start to ripen.
Amylase enzymes are also made by the pancreas and salivary glands. They help break down carbs so that they are easily absorbed by the body.
That’s why it’s often recommended to chew food thoroughly before swallowing, as amylase enzymes in saliva help break down carbs for easier digestion and absorption.
It’s estimated that Americans consume over 400 million pounds of honey each year.
This delicious liquid is rich in many beneficial compounds, including digestive enzymes.
The following are enzymes found in honey, particularly raw honey:
- Diastases: Break down starch into maltose
- Amylases: Break down starch into sugars like glucose and maltose
- Invertases: Break down sucrose, a type of sugar, into glucose and fructose
- Proteases: Break down proteins into amino acids
Make sure that you’re buying raw honey if you’re seeking its digestive health benefits. Processed honey is often heated, and high heat can destroy digestive enzymes.
Bananas are another fruit that contains natural digestive enzymes.
They contain amylases and glucosidases, two groups of enzymes that break down complex carbs like starch into smaller and more easily absorbed sugars.
Like mangoes, these enzymes break down starch into sugars as bananas start to ripen. That’s why ripe yellow bananas are much sweeter than unripe green bananas.
On top of their enzyme content, bananas are a great source of dietary fiber, which may aid digestive health. A medium banana (118 grams) provides 3.1 grams of fiber.
A two-month study in 34 women looked at the connection between eating bananas and the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Women who ate two bananas daily experienced a modest, non-significant rise in healthy gut bacteria. However, they did experience significantly less bloating.
Unlike other fruits, avocados are unique in that they are high in healthy fats and low in sugar.
They contain the digestive enzyme lipase. This enzyme helps digest fat molecules into smaller molecules, such as fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb.
Lipase is also made by your pancreas, so you don’t need to get it from your diet. However, taking a lipase supplement can help ease digestion, especially after a high-fat meal.
Avocados also contain other enzymes, including polyphenol oxidase. This enzyme is responsible for turning green avocados brown in the presence of oxygen.
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that is popular in the natural health community.
It’s made by adding kefir “grains” to milk. These “grains” are actually cultures of yeast, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria that resemble a cauliflower.
During fermentation, bacteria digest the natural sugars in milk and convert them into organic acids and carbon dioxide. This process creates conditions that help the bacteria grow but also adds nutrients, enzymes, and other beneficial compounds.
Kefir contains many digestive enzymes, including lipase, proteases, and lactase.
Lactase aids the digestion of lactose, a sugar in milk that is often poorly digested. A study found that kefir improved lactose digestion in people with lactose intolerance.
Sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage that has a distinct sour taste.
The fermentation process also adds digestive enzymes, which makes eating sauerkraut a great way to increase your intake of digestive enzymes.
In addition to containing digestive enzymes, sauerkraut is also considered a probiotic food, as it contains healthy gut bacteria that boost your digestive health and immunity.
Many studies have shown that consuming probiotics can ease digestive symptoms, such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain, in both healthy adults and those with IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Just make sure to eat raw or unpasteurized sauerkraut rather than cooked sauerkraut. High temperatures may deactivate its digestive enzymes.
Kimchi is a spicy Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables.
As with sauerkraut and kefir, the fermentation process adds healthy bacteria, which provide nutrients, enzymes, and other benefits. Kimchi contains bacteria of the Bacillus species, which produce proteases, lipase, and amylases. These enzymes digest proteins, fats, and carbs, respectively.
Aside from aiding digestion, kimchi has been linked to many other health benefits. It may be especially effective at lowering cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors.
In a study in 100 young, healthy participants, scientists found that those who ate the most kimchi experienced the greatest reduction in total blood cholesterol. Elevated total blood cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease.
Miso is a popular seasoning in Japanese cuisine. It’s made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a type of fungus. Koji adds a variety of digestive enzymes, including lactase, lipases, proteases, and amylases. That’s one reason why miso may improve the ability to digest and absorb foods.
In fact, studies have shown that the bacteria in miso can reduce symptoms linked to digestive problems, such as irritable bowel disease (IBD). Moreover, fermenting soybeans helps improve their nutritional quality by reducing their anti-nutrient content. Antinutrients are compounds found naturally in foods that may hinder the absorption of nutrients by binding to them.
The kiwifruit is an edible berry that is often recommended to ease digestion. It’s a great source of digestive enzymes, particularly a protease called actinidain. This enzyme helps digest proteins and is commercially used to tenderize tough meats. Additionally, kiwifruit contains many other enzymes that help ripen the fruit. Scientists believe actinidain is one reason why kiwifruits seem to aid digestion.
An animal study found that adding kiwifruit to the diet improved the digestion of beef, gluten and soy protein isolates in the stomach. This was thought to be due to its actinidain content.
Another animal study analyzed the effects of actinidain on digestion. It fed some animals kiwifruit with active actinidain and other animals kiwifruit without active actinidain.
Results showed that animals fed kiwifruit with active actinidain digested meat more efficiently. The meat also moved faster through the stomach. Many human-based studies have also found that kiwifruit aids digestion, reduces bloating and helps relieve constipation.
Ginger has been a part of cooking and traditional medicine for thousands of years. Some of the ginger’s impressive health benefits may be attributed to its digestive enzymes. Ginger contains the protease zingibain, which digests proteins into their building blocks. Zingibain is used commercially to make ginger milk curd, a popular Chinese dessert. Unlike other proteases, it’s not often used to tenderize meats, as it has a short shelf life.
Food sitting in the stomach for too long is often thought to be the cause of indigestion.Studies in healthy adults and those with indigestion show that ginger helped food move faster through the stomach by promoting contractions.
Animal studies have also shown that spices, including ginger, helped increase the body’s own production of digestive enzymes like amylases and lipases. What’s more, ginger appears to be a promising treatment for nausea and vomiting.
The Bottom Line
Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down larger molecules like fats, proteins, and carbs into smaller molecules that are easier to absorb across the small intestine.
Without sufficient digestive enzymes, the body is unable to digest food particles properly, which may lead to food intolerance. Digestive enzymes can be obtained from supplements or naturally through foods. Foods that contain natural digestive enzymes include pineapples, papayas, mangoes, honey, bananas, avocados, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kiwifruit, and ginger.
Adding any of these foods to your diet may help promote digestion and better gut health.