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, particularly magnesium. Many enzymes incorporate a single molecule of a trace mineral-such as manganese, 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, which the body can then 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 (the upper part of 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 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 is mixed and churned by contractions in the stomach. The glands in the stomach secrete hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen, which initiate the process of protein digestion, as well as the intrinsic factor needed for vitamin B12 absorption; but the various enzymes needed for complete digestion of our food are not secreted until further down line, in the small intestine. However, while food is held in the stomach, the enzymes present in what we have consumed can do their work before this more or less partially digested mass passes on to the enzyme-rich environment of the small intestine.
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 liquids 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 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.
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 fish and raw muscle and organ meats. 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 semirancid; to this predigested food they ascribe their stamina. The culturing of dairy products, found almost universally among preindustrialized peoples, enhances the enzyme content of milk, cream, butter and cheese. Ethnic groups that consume large amounts of cooked meat usually include fermented vegetables or condiments, such as sauerkraut and pickled carrots, cucumbers and beets with their meals. Cultured soybean products from Asia, such as natto and miso, are another good source of food enzymes if these foods are eaten unheated. Even after being subjected to heat, fermented foods are more easily assimilated because they have been predigested by enzymes. In like manner, cooked meats that have first been well aged or marinated present less of a strain on the digestive mechanism because of this predigestion.
Grains, nuts, legumes and seeds are rich in enzymes, as well as other nutrients, but they also contain enzyme inhibitors. Unless deactivated, these enzyme inhibitors can put an even greater strain on the digestive system than cooked foods. Sprouting, soaking in warm acidic water, sour leavening, culturing and fermenting-all processes used in traditional societies-deactivate enzyme inhibitors, thus making nutrients in grains, nuts and seeds more readily available.
Most fruits and vegetables contain few enzymes; exceptional plant foods noted for high enzyme content include extra virgin olive oil and other unrefined oils, raw honey, grapes, figs and many tropical fruits including avocados, dates, bananas, papaya, pineapple, kiwi and mangos.
Copyright: Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, PhD. ©1999. All Rights Reserved.