An important branch of twentieth century nutritional research, running parallel to and equal in significance to the discovery of vitamins and minerals, has been the discovery of enzymes and their function. Enzymes are complex proteins that act as catalysts in almost every biochemical process that takes place in the body. Their activity depends on the presence of adequate vitamins and minerals. Many enzymes incorporate a single molecule of a trace mineral —such as copper, iron or zinc —without which the enzyme cannot function. In the 1930’s, when enzymes first came to the attention of biochemists, some 80 were identified; today over 5,000 have been discovered.
Enzymes fall into one of three major classifications. The largest is the metabolic enzymes which play a role in all bodily processes including breathing, talking, moving, thinking, behavior and maintenance of the immune system. A subset of these metabolic enzymes acts to neutralize poisons and carcinogens such as pollutants, DDT and tobacco smoke, changing them into less toxic forms that the body can eliminate. The second category is the digestive enzymes, of which there are about 22 in number. Most of these are manufactured by the pancreas. They are secreted by glands in the duodenum (a valve that separates the stomach from the small intestine) and work to break down the bulk of partially digested food leaving the stomach.
The enzymes we need to consider when planning our diets are the third category, the food enzymes. These are present in raw foods and they initiate the process of digestion in the mouth and upper stomach. Food enzymes include proteases for digesting protein, lipases for digesting fats and amylases for digesting carbohydrates. Amylases in saliva contribute to the digestion of carbohydrates while they are being chewed, and all enzymes found in food continue this process while it rests in the upper or cardiac portion of the stomach. The upper stomach secretes no digestive juices whatsoever, but acts much like the crop of a bird or the first stomach of ruminant animals. It can be described as a holding tank where the enzymes present in raw foods do their work on what we have eaten before this more or less partially digested mass passes on to the lower stomach, about 30 minutes after food is ingested. Hydrochloric acid secretion occurs only in the lower stomach and is stimulated by the passage of food from the upper to lower stomach. (This hydrochloric acid does not digest meat, as is commonly believed, but activates the enzyme pepsinogen to its active form pepsin that digests protein.)
Enzyme research has revealed the importance of raw foods in the diet. The enzymes in raw food help start the process of digestion and reduce the body’s need to produce digestive enzymes. All enzymes are deactivated at a wet-heat temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit, and a dry-heat temperature of about 150 degrees. It is one of those happy designs of nature that foods and liquid at 117 degrees can be touched without pain, but liquids over 118 degrees will burn. Thus we have a built-in mechanism for determining whether or not the food we are eating still contains its enzyme content.
A diet composed exclusively of cooked food puts a severe strain on the pancreas, drawing down its reserves, so to speak. If the pancreas is constantly overstimulated to produce the enzymes that ought to be in foods, the result over time will be inhibited function. Humans eating an enzyme-poor diet, comprised primarily of cooked food, use up a tremendous amount of their enzyme potential in the outpouring of secretions from the pancreas and other digestive organs. The result, according to the late Dr. Edward Howell, a noted pioneer in the field of enzyme research, is a shortened life-span, illness, and lowered resistance to stress of all types. He points out that humans and animals on a diet comprised largely of cooked food have enlarged pancreas organs while other glands and organs, notably the brain, actually shrink in size. His research also uncovered the fact that the body recycles enzymes by absorbing them through the intestine and colon and transporting them in the blood back to the upper intestine to be used again. The body is thus designed to conserve its precious enzyme stores.
Dr. Howell formulated the following Enzyme Nutrition Axiom: The length of life is inversely proportional to the rate of exhaustion of the enzyme potential of an organism. The increased use of food enzymes promotes a decreased rate of exhaustion of the enzyme potential. Another rule can be expressed as follows: Whole foods give good health; enzyme-rich foods provide limitless energy.
Almost all traditional societies incorporate raw, enzyme-rich foods into their cuisines —not only vegetable foods but also raw animal proteins and fats in the form of raw dairy foods, raw muscle and organ meats, and raw fish. These diets also traditionally include a certain amount of cultured or fermented foods, which have an enzyme content that is actually enhanced by the fermenting and culturing process. The Eskimo diet, for example, is composed in large portion of raw fish that has been allowed to “autolate” or “predigest,” that is, become putrefied or semi-rancid; to this predigested food they ascribe their stamina. The culturing of dairy products, found almost universally among pre-industrialized peoples, enhances the enzyme content of milk, cream, butter and cheese.
From Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats by Sally Fallon and Mary G Enig, PhD; available from NewTrends Publishing (877) 707-1776
Enzyme Nutrition and Food Enzymes for Health and Longevity by Edward Howell are available from Radiant Life (888) 593-8333