Digestive Enzymes Formula | Natural Digestive Health

Date: 11/10/2003    Written by: Jon Barron

Enzymes, Part 2 of 3

Choosing Your Digestive Enzymes

There are several hundred digestive enzyme formulas on the market. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them aren't even worth the cost of the bottles they are packaged in. Today, I want to give you the tools to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to those formulas. Those tools center around your ability to identify:

  • Watered down formulas
  • Actual enzyme activity
  • Why the "My protease is bigger than your protease" game is useless
  • The importance of pH ranges in designing a formula
  • What about enteric coating
  • Animal sourced enzymes VS vegetarian sourced enzymes
  • Whether or not your formula is designed for the real world
  • How to use an enzyme formula
  • The importance of HCL -- and where it belongs
  • Dual action formulas VS dedicated formulas

Watered down formulas

All too often, nutritional formulas are designed by people who get their "expertise" from books, not real world experience. This makes for formulas that may look good on paper, but make no sense in the real world. Examples include formulas that contain 30 ingredients stuffed into a 500 mg capsule. On paper, it gives companies bragging rights to all of these great ingredients in their formula, which some people think is a good thing. But the reality is that if all the ingredients are equal in the formula, that means 16.7 thousandths of a gram of each ingredient is present. In fact, the reality is usually worse, with the first few ingredients getting more and the rest getting as little as 4, or even 2, thousandths of a gram. Incidentally, a full gram is only1/28 of an ounce. When you get down to 2, 4, or even 16.7 thousandths of a gram, you're talking pixie dust levels for a given ingredient.

So what does this have to do with digestive enzymes? Well, it's hard enough to stuff all of the enzyme activity you need into a 500 mg capsule, even packing it full to the brim with the highest quality enzymes. And yet, so many enzyme formulas, stuff their enzyme capsules with more herbs than enzymes because it looks good on the label. For example, I went on the net and randomly pulled up a major selling enzyme formula. It has just a little over 100 mg of enzymes in each capsule. It has 300 mg of herbs (nothing wrong with them except for the fact they have nothing to do with the purpose of the formula) and 100 mg of fillers. That means that with this formula, it will take you 5 capsules to get the enzyme activity you would get from just one properly designed capsule.

Actual enzyme activity

And that brings up another issue -- enzyme activity. Be suspicious of any enzyme formula that lists the mgs of enzymes present as opposed to the activity level of each enzyme in the formula. Activity level is what you're after. Two batches of the same enzyme of equal weight can have wildly different activity levels. The bottom line is that when it comes to enzymes, weight measurements are just not useful and can be downright misleading, as there is no direct relationship between weight and units of activity. In fact, an enzyme can still have a weight even if it has been destroyed and has zero activity. When comparing enzymes, if you want an apples to apples comparison, you need to compare activity levels.

The internationally recognized and accepted standard for measurement is by Food Chemical Codex (FCC) Units. This is usually expressed in different activity units for each type of enzyme, as in:

  • Protease - HUTs (Hemoglobin units, tyrosine basis)
  • Amylase - SKB (named after the creators of the test Sandstedt, Kneen, and Blish ) or DU (used in the brewing industry)
  • Lipase - LU
  • etc.

My protease is bigger than your protease

The hot game in enzyme formulas right now is comparison tables so you can see that brand A has more protease than brand B or C. This is not necessarily useless, but it is marginal. It ignores a number of factors

  • First of all, unless you are on a "meat lover's diet", you need far less protease than most of these formulas contain.
  • On the other hand, you need more amylase and more lactase if you want a formula designed for the way most people eat.
  • And high HUT numbers for protease, provide an incomplete picture. Unless the formula also contains a significant amount of acid stable protease, you will find that your supplement just doesn't work as well as expected.

So what numbers should you look for?

  • Protease: A minimum of 33,000 HUT should be adequate for most meals. (Remember, you can always take a second or third capsule for meals that require it.)
  • Acid stable protease: 1,000 SAPU would be great. Most formulas have none at all.
  • Lipase: 5,000 LU is adequate
  • Amylase: Look for 12,000 SKB
  • Lactase: 1,500 LACU is the minimum with 2,000 or even 2,500 being better
  • Look for a variety of other enzymes such as Malt diastase, Invertase, Glucoamylase, Cellulase, and Hemicellulase

And look for Alpha galactosidase to help control gas

Whether or not your formula is designed for the real world

This ties into what we've just talked about. Extremely high protease numbers do not reflect the average "western" diet -- a diet high in carbohydrates, fats, and dairy products. Even people who try and avoid these items often find them sneaking in unbeknownst to them. For example, if you eat out at restaurants, you find dairy used in soups, sauces, and pastas. Formulas need to be designed for the way you eat, not for "ideal" diets or to help manufacturers win bragging contests in advertising comparison tables.

pH ranges in which a formula works

We've already talked a little about the importance of pH ranges for proteases, but this is so important, let's cover it in a little more detail.

Most people believe that when you eat a meal it drops into a pool of stomach acid, where it's broken down, then goes into the small intestine to have nutrients taken out, and then into the colon to be passed out of the body. Not quite.

What nature intended is that you eat enzyme rich foods and chew your food properly. If you did that, the food would enter the stomach laced with digestive enzymes. These enzymes would then "predigest" your food for about an hour -- actually breaking down as much as 75% of your meal.

After this period of "predigestion," hydrochloric acid and pepsin are introduced. The acid inactivates all of the food-based enzymes (except the acid stable enzymes), but begins its own function of breaking down what is left of the meal. Eventually, this nutrient-rich food concentrate moves on into the small intestine. Once this concentrate enters the small intestine, the acid is neutralized and the pancreas reintroduces digestive enzymes to the process. As digestion is completed, nutrients are passed through the intestinal wall and into the blood stream.

That's what nature intended. Unfortunately, most of us don't live our lives as nature intended! Processing and cooking destroy enzymes in food. This means that, for most of us, the food entering our stomachs is severely enzyme deficient.

At first, the food sits there for an hour, like a heavy lump, with very little predigestion taking place. Even after the stomach acid has done its work, the meal enters the small intestine largely undigested. But gradually, we train our body's to respond more and more quickly with ever increasing amounts of stomach acid in an attempt to compensate for the lack of predigestion. The consequences are:

  • Acid reflux which is caused by the high levels of acid introduced too early in the process and splashing up into the esophagus. Oftentimes, the mere act of using digestive enzymes can eliminate acid reflux. Note while the use of prescription and over the counter acid reflux drugs may help alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux, they significantly aggravate the following three problems.
  • Incomplete digestion. High levels of stomach acid cannot adequately overcome the lack of predigestion. That means that food is only partially digested, which means that many proteins that are not sufficiently broken down enter the blood stream causing allergic and autoimmune problems. Another problem is chronic indigestion. Acid reflux drugs which reduce the amount of stomach acid make this problem even worse.
  • Eventually, you blow out the ability of your stomach to produce sufficient stomach acid, which means incomplete digestion. A common condition in the elderly. Again, if you use drugs that artificially suppress your stomach's acid making abilities, you eventually kill its ability to produce stomach acid.
  • Malnutrition. Incomplete digestion means that you don't get the nutrient value from your meal. A common condition in the elderly. Again, aggravated by the use of acid reflux medications.

Enteric Coating

Since it is known that digestive enzymes don't mix with stomach acid, some formulators enteric coat their digestive enzymes. But this is counterproductive -- the result of book learned theory, not real world experience. If the enzymes are enteric coated, they won't begin working until they reach the intestinal tract. This is a good thing for proteolytic enzymes, but not digestive enzymes. The primary role of digestive enzymes is to work in predigestion. If the enzymes are enteric coated, that is an impossibility.

Animal VS Vegetable

Experience shows that vegetarian based enzymes are a better bet than animal based enzymes

  • Their activity levels are more consistent
  • They are less likely to be contaminated with pesticides and xenoestrogens
  • They are less likely to contain prions -- a concern relative to mad cow disease

How to use an enzyme formula

So how many enzymes should you take? Well, that depends on the strength of your formula and the size of your meal. If one capsule works for most of your meals, you may find you need to take 2 when you overindulge, or 4 on Thanksgiving.

And when do you take your enzymes? I've seen instructions that recommend taking enzymes after you eat your meal, but that makes no sense. The moment dead food enters the stomach, your body recognizes that it has no enzymes and starts pumping in stomach acid. If you have your enzymes after eating your meal, they will be rendered inactive by the stomach acid being pumped in and provide much less benefit -- at least until they are reactivated by the alkaline environment of the intestinal tract, but by then much of their value will be gone. On the other hand, if you take them too soon, they will clear the stomach and be absorbed into your bloodstream before they have a chance to help digest your food. The simple answer is to take them just before you start eating. This sends a signal to your body that enzymes are present and begins to train your body to hold back on the stomach acid for the 40-60 minutes that nature intended

And if you forget to take your enzymes before you start eating, they can still be of use after you eat -- depending on the size of the meal and how heavy it is, and if your formula contains acid stable protease. In fact, you may find that you can still get great benefit taking enzymes 3-4 hours after eating a large heavy meat, starch, and fat meal -- you know, the kind that sits in the stomach like a giant piece of lead for for three days!


Some enzyme formulas like to include HCL (stomach acid) in the form of Betaine Hydrochloride to aid in digestion. But for the reasons that we've just talked about, this does not make sense. Taking Betaine HCL with your enzyme supplement (or as part of it) creates an acid environment too soon in the digestive process. The bottom line is that for those who need supplemental HCL (a significant percentage of the elderly), it should be taken as a separate supplement 40-60 minutes after you finish eating.

Dual action formulas

It is possible to use digestive enzymes as systemic proteolytic enzymes (enzymes designed to clean out the bloodstream and body, and which are taken without food so they go into the bloodstream). In fact, for years I designed enzyme formulas in this way. It's convenient, and it does work. The problem is that you have to compromise your formula to do this. A capsule can only hold so much. If you beef up the protease to accommodate the proteolytic functions, you have to back off from the other digestive enzymes. But if you make the formula a full spectrum digestive enzyme formula, you have to cut back on the proteases, or at least the ability of the proteases to work in a wide range of pHs. In the end, you get much more effective formulas if you split them in two and design your digestive enzymes as pure digestive enzymes and your proteolytics as a pure proteolytic formula.

In our next issue, I'm going to talk about proteolytic enzyme formulas. A good proteolytic formula can make a profound difference in the state of your health. I'll also talk briefly about the release of what I consider one of the most important formulas that I've been involved with in the last five years -- the strongest proteolytic formula available in the world today.

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    Submitted by Rachael on
    July 8, 2012 - 9:37pm

    I was told by a health professional that I most likely had an inability to digest proteins, as my system was off from various factors. She gave me digestive enzymes to take with every meal, one with a blend of plant enzymes including protease, and another one to try out to see if it worked better that was "protease free". Can you give me some insight as to why someone would want to take enzymes without any protease? Especially if they seem to be having trouble digesting protein properly? Thank you! Rachael

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    July 9, 2012 - 10:36am

    Possibly, he is recommending a supplement high in natural proteases such as bromelain and papain. But thy are proteases too. But, yes, a supplement with no protease to help with a protein problem does not make much sense.

    Submitted by Gala on
    March 23, 2013 - 1:25pm

    My mom has chronic pancreatitis, and I am looking for the adequate digestive enzyme product in her situation. Why is so much more protease active units (33 000 HUT) than lipase active units (5 000 LU) recommended in the digestive enzyme formula? Pancreatic juice plays a key role in the digestion of all macronutrients, but is most crucial for lipid digestion. Protein digestion begins in the stomach and starch digestion begins in the mouth, which continues with pancreatic juice afterwards. The doctor prescribed my mom a digestive enzyme which has 10 000 units of lipase and just 600 units of protease. I assume the higher value of lipase units would be recommended just for people that have chronic pancreatitis? Thank you a lot for the answer!

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    March 25, 2013 - 9:10am

    It’s actually not “so much more active units.” HUT and LU measure entirely different things. The protease and lipase in the digestive enzyme formula are actually balanced according to the diets that most people eat. That said, the numbers in the activity units are not connected. They are not one-to-one comparable in any sense of the word. Since you asked, we’re going to have to get involved in some chemistry to clarify the difference.

    • Protease (HUT) “Hemoglobin unit on a Tyrosine basis” -- The activity of many protease enzymes is measured in the FCC HUT. This assay is based upon the hydrolysis of denatured hemoglobin. One FCC HUT unit of proteolytic (protease) activity is defined as that amount of enzyme that produces, in one minute under the specified conditions, a hydrolysate whose absorbance at 275nm is the same as that of a solution containing 1.10 g per mL of tyrosine in 0.006N hydrochloric acid.
    • Lipase (FCCLU) “Food Chemical Codex Lipase unit” -- One FCC Lipase Unit (LU) is defined as that quantity of enzyme that will liberate the equivalent of one µmol of acid (H+) per minute from the substrate, under the conditions of the assay. The assay is based on a five-minute hydrolysis of an olive oil substrate at pH 6.5 and 30°C. The fatty acids released on hydrolysis of the glycerol esters are determined by titration with sodium hydroxide.

    The pancreas secretes a group of enzymes that collectively have the capacity to reduce virtually all digestible macromolecules into forms that are capable of, or nearly capable of being absorbed. Three major groups of enzymes are critical to efficient digestion. These include: 

    • Proteases: Unless proteases are present when a meal is consumed, digestion of proteins is initiated by pepsin in the stomach, with the bulk of protein digestion the result of pancreatic proteases. Several proteases are synthesized in the pancreas and secreted into the lumen of the small intestine. The two major pancreatic proteases are trypsin and chymotrypsin.
    • Amylase and carbohydrase to break down carbohydrates and starches
    • Pancreatic Lipase: The major form of dietary fat is triglyceride. A triglyceride molecule cannot be directly absorbed across the intestinal mucosa. It must first be digested into a 2-monoglyceride and two free fatty acids. The enzyme that performs this hydrolysis is pancreatic lipase, which is delivered into the lumen of the gut as a constituent of pancreatic juice. Note: Sufficient quantities of bile salts must also be present in the lumen of the intestine in order for lipase to efficiently digest dietary triglyceride and for the resulting fatty acids and monoglyceride to be absorbed. This means that normal digestion and absorption of dietary fat is critically dependent on secretions from both the pancreas and liver.
    • Misc: In addition to the proteases, lipase and amylase, the pancreas produces a host of other digestive enzymes, including ribonuclease, deoxyribonuclease, gelatinase and elastase.

    Now, as to why your doctor prescribed enzymes that are predominantly lipase as opposed to a more balanced broad spectrum supplement, you would have to ask your doctor. There must be something in your tests that would indicate that was necessary. (Note: high triglycerides are often an indicator of pancreatitis.) If the digestion of fats is indeed a particular problem for you, you might want to ask your doctor if additional bile salts might be helpful.

    For more on the pancreas and pancreatitis, check out http://www.jonbarron.org/article/pancreas-and-digestion.

    Submitted by Samantha Whittaker on
    April 29, 2013 - 4:17am

    Hi My mum and her twin brother both died of pancreatic cancer and I am looking at what preventative measures in relation to lifestyle and nutrition I can take to minimise the risk. I therefore was looking at taking enzyme tablets and wondered if you can advise of a good one to take. I eat a varied diet including meat, fish, dairy, grains, etc but do have some difficulty digesting fats such as cream,and also eggs? Could you recommend a good enzyme to take?

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    April 29, 2013 - 5:04pm

    When it comes to cancer prevention, I would highly recommend reading Jon Barron's book "Lessons From The Miracle Doctors." It covers everything you need to know, plus it includes a special chapter on both enzymes and cancer.  His latest edition has the most updated information, but if you want to check out the abridged free version, you can download it here:  http://www.jonbarron.org/barron-lessons-from-the-miracle-doctors

    Submitted by James Allegro on
    May 10, 2014 - 9:45pm

    I have silent reflux/LPR and one of m symptoms is burping alot, especially during a meal and more often the couple of hours after the meal is finished. I also often have a bloated feeling or a feeling like the food sits in my stomach longer than it should. I have begun taking digestive enzymes (Absorb Aid Digestive support), which are vegetarian digestive enzymes. I take 4 capsules just before my heaviest meal. Although helpful, I still get alot of the burping and bloating as mentioned above. What do you recommend. Should I increase the number of capsules before meal? Should I start taking HCL/pepsin capsules after the meal is eaten? Should that help with the burping/bloating? I am not taking any ant acids although I was taking nexium and zantac for about 6 months, but I stopped taking them a few months ago.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    May 12, 2014 - 9:24am

    Hi James,

    Just make sure that first you have the right formula.  Check out what Jon recommends in any digstive enzyme formula, these numbers and ingredients are important:

    • Protease: A minimum of 33,000 HUT should be adequate for most meals. (Remember, you can always take a second or third capsule for meals that require it.)
    • Acid stable protease: 1,000 SAPU would be great. Most formulas have none at all.
    • Lipase: 5,000 LU is adequate
    • Amylase: Look for 12,000 SKB
    • Lactase: 1,500 LACU is the minimum with 2,000 or even 2,500 being better
    • Look for a variety of other enzymes such as Malt diastase, Invertase, Glucoamylase, Cellulase, and Hemicellulase

    And look for Alpha galactosidase to help control gas.  

    Submitted by lyn on
    June 8, 2016 - 8:27am

    This is an important article. It's pertinent to know about when to take the enzymes and what to look for in a forumula. I can't believe how many horrible forumulas there are. It's important to read labels and read the whole ingredients label.

    Like one company I won't mention the name, but starts with the letter F... includes polyethylene glycol..........which is a main ingredient in antifreeze...

    Submitted by Jessica on
    December 13, 2016 - 9:04pm
    Palm Bay , Florida

    My GI ran blood work & said my Amylase levels are low & recommended I start taking Creon 3x per day, forever. I do not take medicine & was very alarmed by this phone message recommendation. Wouldn't it be better to take a digestive enzyme supplement than to take a pharmaceutical drug with side effects? Why wasn't this offered to me when my doctor knows I don't like to take drugs? Any recommendations?

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    December 15, 2016 - 2:12pm

    Creon is simply a prescription digestive enzyme complex. In fact, it is more limited, if you will, than most digestive enzyme complexes you buy in a store, as it is designed to simply mimic the pancreatic enzymes that your body produces. It’s certainly understandable why he would prescribe it as it is FDA approved, and for that reason, of course, it is more expensive. That said, low amylase levels are not simply a problem, they are also a symptom of other possible serious underlying problems. The real question you should be asking your doctor is why he is simply addressing the symptom, without attempting to identify the underlying cause?

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    December 15, 2016 - 5:41pm

    Creon is simply a prescription digestive enzyme complex. In fact, it is more limited, if you will, than most digestive enzyme complexes you buy in a store. It’s certainly understandable why he would prescribe it as it is FDA approved, and for that reason, of course, it is more expensive. That said, low amylase levels are not simply a problem, they are also a symptom of other possible serious underlying problems. The real question you should be asking your doctor is why he is simply addressing the symptom, without attempting to identify the underlying cause?  

    More info: https://jonbarron.org/article/pancreas-and-digestion

    Submitted by Diane on
    September 27, 2018 - 7:57am
    Peoria , Illinois

    I had my thyroid removed in 1999 due to cancer. Since then my thyroid levels have been kept suppressed as to discourage growth of any thyroid cells left. I have IBS and can't digest dairy or legumes. I wanted to know what enzymes would work well for this situation. Thanks.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    September 27, 2018 - 4:34pm
    Submitted by Gypsy Garner on
    November 1, 2018 - 6:15am
    Piqua , Ohio

    Hi, I have been having acid reflux symptoms for some time now. Started last year with silent reflux but I did not know until this year when I started experience more symptoms. Went to the doctor and got an endoscopy and she said I had gastritis( My guess is from Ibprofen use) with no bleeding and no h-pylori. I have been trying to heal the gastritis with slippery elm, marshmallow root, zinc carnosine and it has helped but I can't get rid of the indigestion. I have tried a couple different digestive enzymes but they both hurt my stomach really bad. I feel like that's what I need because my food wants to come back up especially when I get up in the morning and I'm taking HCL with pepsin which has helped as well. Do you have anymore suggestions?

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    November 2, 2018 - 10:47pm

    Do a search and check out our free series on digestive health!

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