Technology has changed the world — yet our diets are behind the times, especially when it comes to efficiency. We base our diets on calories, not nutrients, and our food conversion leaves a lot of unhelpful material inside the body and a lot of waste.

But improving nutrition efficiency is possible.  We can improve the amount of nutrients we extract from our food by introducing supplementary enzymes.

Supplemental Enzymes: Proven Benefits

Our body naturally produces enzymes designed to break down the components of the foods we eat into molecules our body requires to survive, repair, and protect itself. As one ages, and as one eats a narrower variety of foods, these enzymes become less effective, preventing optimal uptake of nutrients from foods and increasing the volume of waste products produced from digestion and metabolism.  The same process occurs in livestock, and it is through research and development in the agricultural sector that the industry has discovered the effects of feed and supplemental enzymes on animal health and digestion.

The results of feed and feed combinations on cows have been exhaustively studied, documented, and applied in the agribusiness industry for years. Cattle on a grass-fed diet, the optimal calorie source for their digestive systems, have been shown to be healthier and produce better quality yields than those on corn- or soy-based feed. However, when supplemental enzymes were added to the latter diet, those cows produced around 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions (in the form of methane through flatulence) and delivered increased protein weight versus unsupplemented corn- or soy-based feed. Because cows are not naturally disposed to consuming these feeds, their digestive systems lack the enzymes to properly extract nutrients from them. Cattle producers discovered that the innovation of enzyme supplementation allowed livestock to adapt to a diet their systems were not necessarily designed for.  Nutrient efficiency isn’t just a matter of good livestock health – it’s also good business, as animals that can better digest their food produce more milk, more meat, and less waste per kilogram of feed. They require less pasture land and water as well.

These innovations in enzyme supplementation can be applied in other sectors too. Farmed tilapia, the new darling of the aquaculture industry, suffers from a significant drop in protein quality and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, not to mention bland flavor, as a result of switching from their natural insect- and fish-based protein sources to the commonly used soy- and grain-based feed many fish farms rely on to keep costs down and profits up. Supplemental enzymes provided along with the feed of these new “chickens of the sea” may be the key to maximizing the nutrient quality of farmed fish, which continues to be dwarfed by that of wild varieties.

Challenges to Extending Impact to People

Finally, at the top of the food chain, nutrition experts and health gurus have been exploring the possibility of supplemental enzymes to improve the quality of nutrition human beings gain from the food they eat. There are many challenges for the earnest pursuit of enzyme supplementation, however. One of the greatest is the lack of a regulatory framework to properly categorize and validate the content of supplements. The US supplements industry is notoriously unregulated, leaving a difficult environment for consumers to navigate, with little to rely on for guidance other than manufacturers’ claims and anecdotal evidence from testimonials. The Food and Drug Administration’s hands-off approach simply does not encourage the supplements industry to pursue the costly scientific research necessary to provide consumers with proof of their products’ effectiveness in the form of hard data and results.

Regardless of the well-placed doubts about the supplements industry as it operates today, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Serious consideration should be given towards the study of the potential positive effects of enzyme supplementation on our own ability to optimally extract nutrients from the foods we eat. “As above, so below,” the axiom goes, and it would make little sense to assume that enzyme supplementation, which has been proven effective for years in livestock, would not yield the same or similar benefits for our species.

Nutritional Efficiency’s Role in Combating Malnourishment

Previous articles I’ve written have spoken at length on the success gap between solving the hunger crisis and the continuing problem of malnutrition. In many of the instances where famine was ended through hardy hybrid crops and improved farming practices, monoculture has led to mono-nutrition. Eating cassava root fried in palm oil, for instance, might be a

cheap supply of calories, but the quality and variety of nutrients provided by such a meal are limited by how our bodies are designed to extract nutrients from these foods. The same goes for the nutrient-poor diets of Western and emerging markets, where obesity and malnutrition are rising in tandem. Food producers invest a great deal of resources in “fortifying” their products with vitamins or minerals, but these efforts are fruitless if we cannot properly extract the added nutrients from these foods. Perhaps enzyme supplementation would be a way to bridge this divide in human diets? Medical science has already proved the positive effects of dietary probiotics to aid in digestion and metabolism in people. Enzymes may be the solution for improving nutrition across the wide spectrum of human diets across the world.

One of the primary guarantors of food security is efficiency. Making sure that resources we put towards food production are used optimally is just one part of the equation. The other part lies in increasing the efficiency of nutrient extraction by those that consume the food we produce. For every calorie consumed, we must ensure the maximum nutrient yield to ensure our resources don’t ultimately end up as waste; and this is true whether you are a cow, a fish, or a person walking down the street.

Karla Canavan is Director of Sustainable Finance for Bunge, where she develops new opportunities in the food and energy sectors to achieve triple-bottom-line returns for investors. She has been involved in trading, finance, and agribusiness for more than 20 years.