Vegetarian vs. Animal Enzymes

Many digestive and systemic enzyme supplements on the market today contain enzymes derived from animal sources. Examples of these animal enzymes include pepsin, pancreatin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. However, dietary supplements containing enzymes obtained from non-animal, vegetarian sources have become increasingly more popular. These vegetarian enzymes are derived from either plant or microbial sources. The two plant-derived enzymes most frequently used are bromelain and papain extracted from pineapple and papaya, respectively. The microbial enzyme category contains several highly-purified enzymes concentrated from non-genetically modified microorganisms, primarily Aspergillus oryzae/niger, with a long history of safe and effective use.

Enzymes derived from microbial (fungal or bacterial) sources are often designated as plant or plant-derived enzymes because company marketing departments perceive “plant” sounds better to the consumer than “microbial”. Yet, for many years, the scientific classification of organisms has been divided into distinct kingdoms for animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. This means fungal and bacterial enzymes are definitely not plant enzymes. By definition, vegetarian or vegan is synonymous with non-animal so plant, fungal and bacterial enzymes can all be considered vegetarian. Vegetarian enzymes from microbial sources have several major advantages over animal enzymes and, in some cases, even plant enzymes. 

Vegetarian enzymes can be concentrated more than animal enzymes, so more activity can be included in each capsule or tablet. In general, this means vegetarian enzymes require fewer capsules or tablets than animal enzymes to provide equivalent enzymatic activity. This is of particular importance in the use of proteolytic enzymes for systemic purposes where it could take five tablets or capsules containing the highest concentration of pancreatin to provide the same enzymatic activity as one capsule providing high-potency vegetarian proteases.

Vegetarian enzymes from microbial sources provide a broader spectrum of digestive activity working on all of the main food components (protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber) for more complete digestion. Animal enzymes focus primarily on digesting protein with minimal (pancreatin) or no (pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin) starch and fat-digesting capabilities. In addition, animal enzymes provide no sugar-digesting or fiber-digesting activity. Plant enzymes are also limited to protein digestion, offering no assistance with carbohydrate, fat and fiber digestion. Besides the four main digestive enzymes (protease, amylase, lipase and cellulase), there are vegetarian enzymes from microbial sources available to break down gluten (DPP-IV peptidase) in grain-containing foods, sucrose (invertase) in high-sugar foods, lactose (lactase) in dairy foods, raffinose sugars (alpha-galactosidase) in beans and other gas-forming vegetables, and specific complex carbohydrates or fibers (hemicellulase, pectinase, beta-glucanase, xylanase) in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For more information about gluten-digesting and dairy-digesting enzymes, check out our specialty blends.

Vegetarian enzymes, in the right combination, are active over a broad pH range (pH 2.0 to 10.0) so they are capable of working throughout the entire digestive tract. One of the animal enzymes, pepsin, is optimally active only in the acidic conditions found in the stomach (pH 2.0 to 3.0), requiring the body to produce or obtain adequate HCl for it to work. The other animal enzymes, pancreatin, trypsin and chymotrypsin, are optimally active only in the alkaline environment of the small intestine (pH 7.0 to 9.0). Individuals who produce too much acid in the stomach or are taking HCl supplements may not achieve this alkaline pH until the food is well past the absorption sites in the small intestine meaning these animal enzymes will have minimal beneficial effect.

Vegetarian enzymes are stable in the acidic environment of the stomach and some of the microbial proteases are even optimally active in gastric acidity. However, pancreatin, trypsin and chymotrypsin can be destroyed in the acid conditions of the stomach before ever reaching the small intestine. For this reason, manufacturers of products containing these animal enzymes will often enteric-coat either the enzymes themselves or the entire tablet. This process makes the enzymes/tablet resistant to stomach acid with the intention that the coating will dissolve in the alkaline pH of the small intestine releasing the enzymes. As indicated before, some people may never reach the alkaline pH required to release the enzymes from the enteric coating or reach it too late for the enzymes to have any real benefit. Of equal concern, the primary ingredient in most, if not all, of these enteric-coatings is a synthetic polymer such as methacrylic acid copolymer or polyvinyl acetate phthalate which is similar to those used in the plastics industry.

Vegetarian, microbial enzymes spare the body from producing excess acid and digestive enzymes. Because these vegetarian enzymes begin digesting food almost immediately upon entering the stomach, some of the food will have already been digested as it passes certain feedback receptors in the digestive process. Since the body makes acid and enzymes in response to the food composition and state of digestion, the pre-digestion of the food in the first 45 minutes to 1 hour after ingestion will signal the body to produce less acid and fewer digestive enzymes. This means less energy and materials will be expended by the body on digestion. Since the most commonly used animal enzymes (pancreatin, trypsin and chymotrypsin) don’t even begin working until the intestinal tract, the body will already have wasted resources on producing stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes.

Vegetarian enzymes from microbial sources are cultivated in a controlled environment, free of contaminants including pesticides. Animal enzymes are commercially obtained from slaughterhouse pigs or cows, which have received steroids, antibiotics, etc. and have been fed pesticide-containing, genetically-altered feed. Commercially-grown pineapple and papaya are generally exposed to environmental contamination, including pesticides, preservatives and growth-enhancers. Considering the many advantages of microbial enzymes over animal enzymes and even plant enzymes, a dietary supplement providing these vegetarian enzymes is the best choice.