Most of us take our body’s natural ability to digest food for granted. We put food into our mouth, feel it fill our stomachs, and then (usually) forget about it. But the biological processes involved in breaking down and digesting that food relies heavily on enzymes found in our saliva and stomach.
I had the opportunity to partner with Novozymes, a company that develops enzymes for a variety of industry uses, including food. I spoke with scientists and team members at Novozymes about the work they do. It was fascinating to learn about these naturally-occurring proteins and explore their potential uses.
Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts. That is, they act on other molecules and create chemical reactions that occur in cells. Virtually all the reactions happening inside the cells of your body are accomplished by enzymes!
Stated more simply, think of enzymes and the molecules they act on as a lock and key. The enzyme is the key, while the molecule it acts on is the lock. When the key connects to the lock, the lock responds by opening. But the key only fits into a lock with a matching shape and only causes the lock to do one thing – unlock! Likewise, when an enzyme connects with the right kind of molecule, it causes a specific reaction to occur to that molecule.
While digestion is the most familiar use of enzymes for most people, the scientists at Novozymes have developed other uses in food products. For people suffering from lactose-intolerance, enzymes are used to create lactose-free milk. Enzymes are being used in bread to make it fresher longer, and to make the dough easier to work with. Enzymes are being used in pet food to create the right nutrition and flavor profile. Enzymes are being used to speed the process of brewing our favorite beers, while still maintaining the right flavor.
Enzymes don’t just act on our food. Novozymes scientists are finding new ways to use enzymes in other industries to make them more sustainable and make our lives a little better. For example, enzymes can turn leftover corn stalks and cobs into eco-friendly fuel for our cars. Novozymes uses its enzymes in laundry detergent so that clothing can be effectively cleaned in cold water, which saves on energy costs. Enzymes also reduce the amount of chemicals needed to produce leather products.
In fact, in 2017 alone, use of the Novozymes’ technologies resulted in a reduction of CO2 emissions by more than 76 million metric tons. For perspective, that is equivalent to taking 32 million cars off the road!
In general, it takes between 2 and 4 years to develop a new enzyme technology and obtain the appropriate regulatory approval for commercial use. Of course, the proper testing and research is done to ensure the safety of all the enzymes being developed by the highly-trained Novozymes scientists, who come from a variety of backgrounds and scientific disciplines.
But we can be confident that the use of these enzymes is safe because they have such a predictable and specific mechanism to create change. Just like the lock and key, we know which molecules the enzymes will interact with, and what kind of reaction they will create.
Even though we don’t necessarily appreciate them, enzymes are all around–and in! –us. They are crucial for life to exist. Novozymes strives to find the very best enzymes available and employ them to solve food and industry problems in a more sustainable way. I’m so excited to see the future potential of this technology and its uses in food.