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"-ASE" לכל חפץ
by Rabbi Zushe Blech


In the course of his daily routine, a mashgiach deals with dozens-if not hundreds-of food ingredients. In the arcane world of modern food technology, terms like “enzymes”, “substrates”, “emulsifiers”, “stabilizers”, and “surfactants” lend some technical significance. But, in the real world one may ask, "What has an enzyme done for me lately?" This article will address some of the direct applications of enzymes in our diet.

The first thing we should do is clarify enzyme terminology. The word enzymecomes from the Greek meaning "in leaven". Long ago, it was recognized that the fermented dough which was used to leaven bread (שאור) brought about changes in dough that could not be attributed to the ingredients of the leaven itself. This unknown component found in leaven was called an “enzyme”.We now know that an enzyme is a protein that acts as a "biological catalyst”, causing changes in other foods. As more enzymes were recognized, they were given names that classically ended with “-in” - such as rennin, pepsin, trypsin, papain, bromelain, etc. Modern names associated with enzymes consist of a word ending with “-ase”, such as protease, amylase, lipase, etc. The enzyme name is formed by adding “-ase” to the base material that is to be modified.

Enzymes are critical to the production of many basic foods. The production of fruit juice uses pectinase to break down the pectin naturally found in the fruit. Pectin is a colloid that causes gelling, and is often added to jams and jellies for this purpose. In order to squeeze the most juice from a fruit, however, pectinase is added. Cellulase is also used to break down the cellulose pulp in the fruit for the same reason. Many natural fruit juices contain a small amount of starch that causes them to appear cloudy; therefore, an amylase (amylum isGreek for starch) is added to help clarify the juice.

Corn syrup is made from cornstarch, which has been broken down (hydrolyzed) into its component glucose. Different types of amylase are used for this purpose. High Fructose Corn Syrup is produced with an enzyme called glucose isomerase, which converts glucose into fructose. Granulated sugar (sucrose) is a molecule consisting of glucose and fructose; invertase is often used to separate glucose and fructose to make invert syrup.

Enzymes are added to a product in the factories, far removed from the household. When was the last time someone made a batch of High Fructose Corn Syrup in their kitchen? Do enzymes ever make their way directly into one’s life?

The answer is yes - and in some very interesting ways. For example, many people are lactose intolerant. Lactose, or milk sugar, is a complex sugar composed of glucose and galactose. In order to be able to digest this sugar, an enzyme called lactase is required. While this enzyme is abundant in the digestive tract of children, lactose production often declines as people reach adulthood. Without lactase, lactose merely passes through the digestive tract where it ferments in the large intestine -- with less than pleasant results. Modern food science has been able to address this issue by producing lactase enzymes through fermentation. Concentrated lactase is then added to milk to make lactose-reduced milk. Alternatively, lactase tablets can be swallowed immediately prior to eating dairy products, in order to increase the amount of lactase available in one's digestive system.

Similarly, there are certain sugars that are poorly digested, e.g. raffinose that occurs in beans. While Oneg Shabbos may call for a good cholent, the bean sugars in this delicacy are not well digested. They wind up rather unceremoniously fermenting in the large intestine. Modern food technology has again come to the rescue. They have developed a specialized enzyme called alpha galactosidase, which enables the breakdown of the offending sugars and allows them to be more easily digested.

Another household use of enzymes can save money at the dinner table and even help lower cholesterol, albeit indirectly. The USDA grades meat based upon the amount of fat it contains (marbling). The more marbled the meat, the tastier and more tender it is. USDA Prime grade is the most tender grade, has the highest level of fat and cholesterol, and costs the most.USDA Choice has less fat than USDA Prime, while USDA Select has even less and is more economical. With the drive to lower the amount of fat and cholesterol consumed, much of the beef sold today is of a lower grade. However, these grades of meat tend to be tougher and less tasty. Without a means of remedying this deficiency, the popularity of these grades would clearly suffer. To solve this problem, meat tenderizers have been developed. Meat is a protein, and a class of enzymes called protease breaks down tough meat protein into softer and more tender fare. Some of these proteases are produced through fermentation, while others are natural plant extracts from the pineapple plant (bromelain) and papaya(papain). In the hands of a skilled and economical chef, these meat tenderizers can be used to masquerade some of the toughest cuts of meat as prime rib! Indeed, enzymes can help to make one healthy, wealthy, and wise.



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