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Demystifying the Intimidating Enzyme

According to the American Nutrition Association, more than 70 million people every day suffer from some kind of digestive issue—whether it’s simple complaints like indigestion, constipation or abdominal pain, or a diagnosed disorder such as celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Naturally, many turn to enzyme supplements to lend a helping hand.

Even though digestive enzymes exist naturally in raw foods, a food’s enzymes are destroyed when it’s cooked or processed—which is a huge problem for people eating a conventional Western diet that traditionally lacks in the raw food category. Compounding this issue is that every 10 years, as the body ages, it loses approximately 13 percent of its supply of enzyme potential. Traditionally, enzymes could find their way back into the body through diet alone; but that’s not the case anymore, according to Melony Fuller, director of marketing at MO-based National Enzyme Company.

“One of the biggest misconceptions in our industry is the belief that food still contains natural enzymes and that people can actually eat their way to good health,” she said. And while part of the blame falls on cooking, the fact is that enzyme deficiency is enhanced by modern day agricultural practices that engineer enzymes out of produce lines to increase shelf life. “When your newly purchased supermarket apples can last weeks, this implies they are lacking healthful enzymes,” Fuller said. “Currently, only fruits and vegetables grown from heirloom seeds—open pollinated seeds raised from seeds at least 50 years old—are likely to retain natural enzymes.”

As word gets out, enzyme supplement and ingredient manufacturers are noticing increased demand for their products.

“The demand for enzyme-based supplements has never been stronger, and despite a weak economy, this growth has been very consistent over the past six years,” observed Scott Ravech, CEO of GA-based Deerland Enzymes. According to market research from SPINS, digestive aids and enzymes grew 13.4 percent in the conventional channel and 18.2 percent in the natural channel in 2013 over the previous year.

“Enzymes receive little or no media attention outside of nutraceutical trade magazines. Yet, the enzyme market continues to grow year after year,” agreed Mike Smith, vice president of CA-based Specialty Enzymes and Biotechnologies. “This growth takes place largely by word of mouth. When you can feel relief from indigestion simply by taking a digestive enzyme, you not only become a repeat customer, but you will tell others, as well.”

Indeed, word is spreading among new demographics, opening up the category to shoppers that may never have visited the enzyme aisle before. According to Alberto Trujillo, national educator at Flora, Inc. (WA-based), aging adults used to be the primary consumer of enzymes since they were experiencing a somewhat expected, age-related decrease in digestive efficiency. “Today, it seems that digestive inefficiency has no age discrimination,” he said. “Younger and younger people are experiencing digestive distress, due to many factors including stress, allergies, poor diet and alcohol consumption.”

At least part of the category’s growth has the sweeping success of probiotics to thank, since it opened up a confusing category to shoppers even in the conventional channel. “It has become well known that both probiotic and enzyme supplements can support healthy digestion and promote better nutrient availability,” explained Danielle Harrison, manager of scientific and regulatory affairs at National Enzyme Company. “This increased consumer awareness will continue to support growth in the industry as digestive problems continue to plague aging Americans and younger consumers take a more proactive approach to health and wellness.”

The problem is that education is still a huge concern in the enzyme supplement market, and word of mouth is only as effective as the information spreading.

Education Issues

It’s no secret that the enzyme category suffers from a unique education problem. “Educating the public has been one of the hardest challenges of being a provider of enzyme-focused supplements. Many individuals, even in the natural foods industry, can be intimidated by enzymes,” said Dave Barton, director of education at Enzymedica (FL-based). “Enzymes have names that are difficult to pronounce, the measure system of active units is not clear to the consumer and consumers do not realize all the potential benefits from enzyme therapy.”

Indeed, potency presents a huge issue in the enzyme category. First, as Ravech explained, the potency of enzymes is not measured in the same way as other nutritional supplements—as a result, even seasoned supplement users might find themselves treading in unfamiliar territory. “Enzymes are not measured by weight, so the number of milligrams of a product would not describe its true potency,” he said. “The determining factor of an enzyme product’s potency is its ‘activity’—the effect it has on proteins, fats and carbohydrates.”

“Shoppers may tend to look at the milligram amounts, rather than activity on labels,” agreed Smith. “This isn’t surprising since this is exactly how you would view vitamins, minerals and most other dietary supplements.”

Beyond this is that different enzymes use different units of measurements to determine potency, and that, subsequently, labeling might be inconsistent across brands. According to Harrison, this can make it difficult for consumers to make comparisons. The Food Chemical Codex (FCC) provides a standard but, explained Harrison, “not all enzymes have compendial assays available, so other units are sometimes used.”

Finally, the enzyme category is marked by competition between manufacturers to achieve the highest potency. “Sometimes the potencies just keep getting unnecessarily higher because manufacturers keep trying to outdo each other. Shoppers need to know that the best product for them doesn’t always mean it’s the one with the highest potency,” Trujillo said. “Everyone is different, and sometimes you have to try several products until you find the right one for you.”

Enzyme labeling is a source of confusion for shoppers at Minnetonka, MN-based Lakewinds Natural Foods. “Potency labeling is very confusing for consumers to grasp because most everything else in the wellness department is weight measured,” explained the store’s wellness buyer, Jenny DeRoo. “People are actually more interested in learning about the process of how enzymes work. Once they do, our staff makes sure to tell them about how potency works and why some supplements may cost more than others. Then they understand.” Still, DeRoo’s shoppers are typically not asking for enzymes by name, unless they’re already seasoned buyers. Instead, they complain of digestive issues to staff, who lead them to the enzyme section.

Enzymes Made Easy

Manufacturers are responding to confusion by offering condition specific products; this way, shoppers can target their ailment rather than seek out an ingredient. “For example, digestive enzymes may be targeted toward lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity,” said Smith. “For systemic enzymes, they may target cardiovascular health, joint support or general inflammation.”

Deerland Enzymes, an ingredient supplier, also finds success with this tactic. “Introducing products into the market that offer the condition-specific benefits that consumers are seeking, such as gluten or dairy digestion, helps to overcome the consumers’ lack of knowledge of the specific benefits of enzymes,” agreed Ravech. The company recently introduced Dairylytic, a dual-functioning enzyme blend specifically designed to break down the lactose associated with intolerance, and Glutalytic, an ingredient that breaks down gluten proteins quickly and efficiently.

Enzymedica puts this strategy into practice with its easy-to-understand color-coded product line. The first category, called Digestives, is represented by yellow labels, and is best merchandised with probiotics, advised Linda Ehrke, the company’s vice president of sales. In fact, three of the products in the Digestives line contain probiotics alongside enzymes. “This gives the retailers a chance to talk about enzymes with probiotics, and the consumer has the opportunity to benefit from both,” said Ehrke. Other color-coded categories include Therapeutic (red), Supportive (green), Scientifically Evaluated (purple) and Enzyme Nutrition Multi-vitamins (blue). Retail staff who need to brush up on their enzyme basics will benefit from the company’s live trainings and seminars, phone trainings, online learning center and written support materials.

Rhonda Miller, general manager at Health Foods Unlimited, a store in Centerville, OH, has taken advantage of such resources and has found success with them. “The education for our employees has made a big difference,” she said. “It makes it so much easier for them to explain enzymes to the customer, instead of just looking at a whole section of enzymes—and we have a six foot section of just enzymes!”

“Many retailers have already availed themselves of our Enzyme Learning Center course, which has introduced the category and capabilities of enzymes and enzyme supplements,” added Barton. “Many happily share what they have learned with the customers.”

Flor is also embracing easy labeling with three formulas that make choosing the right enzyme very simple. Udo’s Choice Digestive Enzyme formula is designed to maximize digestion and absorption of all foods, even for individuals with adequate digestion; Adult Enzyme Blend is designed to enhance digestion of today’s specialized diets which can include high amounts of proteins, meat fats and raw fibrous foods; Advanced Adult Enzyme Blend supports overall digestion and reduces digestive distress and discomfort by anyone with compromised digestion such as the elderly, ill or those having bile insufficiency.

“Many people are adopting extreme diets such as the Paleo diet, which includes high amounts of meat protein and animal fats that require more protein and fat digestion, as well as more and more people having their gallbladder removed,” added Trujillo. “This is why we formulated Udo’s Adult Enzyme formula with higher proteolytic and lipase enzymes for people adopting diets such as the Paleo diet and the Advanced Adult Enzyme with a high variety of all groups of enzymes, especially lipase, to help people with bile insufficiency.”

Retailers can take these easy labeling tactics one step further by bundling complementary products together in a display or even a shrink sleeve, suggested Fuller. “This gives consumers multiple products, which are designed to work together to achieve a specific goal,” she explained. “For instance, bundling a digestive enzyme with a multivitamin targets consumers who desire to improve their overall health. These can be creatively marketed and offered at a price less than if they were purchased separately, ultimately resulting in a larger sale.”

Lakewinds Natural Foods finds success highlighting digestive supplements as a category, and putting enzymes on sale to introduce shoppers to the products.

“The good news is that most consumers who incorporate enzymes into their supplement plan are well educated (they invest a lot of time researching the products that are best for them), brand loyal and typically lead healthier lifestyles,” concluded Ravech. “As these life choices continue to gain in popularity, we firmly believe that market will continue to grow at rates that exceed the average growth rate of the dietary supplement as a whole.”

In the end, the enzyme category is uniquely poised to turn its greatest hurdle into its greatest strength: retailers who embrace education and pass along their knowledge to hungry shoppers will find the greatest success in a sometimes-intimidating category.

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