Lessons from Biochemistry: The Use of Enzymes in the Food Industry

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Enzymes are among the most abundant molecules found in all living creatures. They are proteins that speed up specific chemical reactions which are ultimately the basis of life. Without them, many reactions can still occur but they would be too slow to support life. Each enzyme has a specific three-dimensional shape that allows it to bind its substrate and facilitate its conversion into a product. Alongside their importance in the chemistry of living organisms, enzymes have also been applied in the food industry for decades, to improve quality and stability of products, and to increase production efficiency.

Starting from the breakdown of protein and starch to the processing of raw materials for alcohol fermentation, enzymes in the food industry play a range of important roles. Advances in biotechnology have allowed us to isolate, clone, produce, and optimize the activity of many natural enzymes for our use. Let us look at some examples from some of the most prominent arms of the food industry.

Enzymes like chymosin, pepsin, lipase, and lactase, have been used to great effect in the dairy industry. Cheese production utilizes an enzyme complex called rennet, which is a mixture of chymosin, pepsin, and lipase extracted from animal and microbial sources. The enzyme coagulates milk in the initial stages of cheese production breaking . Lactase treatment improves the solubility and sweetness of various dairy products by breaking lactose down into the smaller and sweeter sugars glucose and galactose. In addition, many people who are unable to consume dairy products due to lactose-intolerance can take supplemental lactase to help break down the lactose, and thus safely consume dairy products.

Enzymes are also used to augment baking. One of the major enzymes used in bread production is amylase. It helps to maximize fermentation by efficiently breaking down starch into smaller sugars for yeast to use. As a result, the end product has an even crumb structure and a fine high loaf volume. Lipases are used to break down many natural lipids found in flour in order to make the dough firmer.

The brewing industry is not left behind in its use of enzymes. Multiple enzymes are used in the industry for better production of low-carbohydrate beer (light beer), to shorten the beer maturation time, and to produce beer from cheaper raw materials. Proteases are used to break down many proteins and free up amino acids. This improves the malt and yeast growth. Proteases also reduces the haziness formed in beer by breaking down certain proteins.

Not many (if any) branches of the food industry are left untouched by enzymes. Enzymes are often used to pre-digest various components found in baby food to make absorption of the nutrients simpler for the babies’ developing digestive systems. The industrial production of fruit juices utilizes an enzyme called pectinase to break down pectin. Pectinase treatment improves texture and clarity by breaking down components of pulp. The enzyme pectinase is extracted from the fungus Asperigillus niger., and is also used in the processing of tea leaves to more effectively bring the flavor out.

Enzymes therefore exert an enormous although largely unseen influence on our daily lives by being involved in the majority of the food production processes that we rely on. Starting from the refreshing morning tea to the after-dinner gulp of velvety wine, enzymes have helped introduce the human world to new dimensions of taste, flavor, and efficiency.

For Yusra, biology has always been a magnet of interest. She has always wanted to know the why’s and how’s of the living world. Being a future microbiologist, she looks forward to doing research on microbial interactions with human lives.