Many organs work together to make up your digestive system (1).
These organs take the food and liquids you eat and break them down into simpler forms, such as proteins, carbs, fats and vitamins. The nutrients are then transported across the small intestine and into the bloodstream, where they provide energy for growth and repair.
Digestive enzymes are necessary for this process, as they break down molecules like fats, proteins and carbs into even smaller molecules that can be easily absorbed.
There are three main types of digestive enzymes:
- Proteases: Break down protein into small peptides and amino acids
- Lipases: Break down fat into three fatty acids plus a glycerol molecule
- Amylases: Break down carbs like starch into simple sugars
Enzymes are also made in the small intestine, including lactase, maltase and sucrase.
If the body is unable to make enough digestive enzymes, food molecules cannot be digested properly. This can lead to digestive disorders like lactose intolerance.
Thus, eating foods that are high in natural digestive enzymes can help improve digestion.
Here are 12 foods that contain natural digestive enzymes.
Pineapples are a delicious tropical fruit rich in digestive enzymes.
In particular, pineapples contain a group of digestive enzymes called bromelain (2).
These enzymes are proteases, which break down protein into its building blocks, including amino acids. This aids the digestion and absorption of proteins (3).
Bromelain can be purchased in powdered form to help tenderize tough meats. It’s also widely available as a health supplement to help people who struggle to digest proteins (4).
A study on people with pancreatic insufficiency, a condition in which the pancreas cannot make enough digestive enzymes, found that taking bromelain combined with a pancreatic enzyme supplement improved digestion more than the enzyme supplement alone (3, 5).
Summary Pineapples contain a group of digestive enzymes called bromelain, which helps break down proteins into amino acids. Bromelain is also available as a supplement.
Papaya or pawpaw is another tropical fruit that is rich in digestive enzymes.
Like pineapples, papayas also contain proteases that help digest proteins. However, they contain a different group of proteases known as papain (6).
Papain is also available as a meat tenderizer and digestive supplement.
If you want to eat papayas, just make sure to eat them ripe and uncooked, as heat exposure can destroy their digestive enzymes.
Also, unripe or semi-ripe papayas can be dangerous for pregnant women, as it may stimulate contractions (8).
Summary Papayas contain the digestive enzyme papain, which breaks down proteins into building blocks, including amino acids. Make sure to eat papayas ripe and uncooked, as high heat can destroy their digestive enzymes.
Mangoes are a juicy tropical fruit that is popular in summer.
They contain the digestive enzymes amylases — a group of enzymes that break down carbs from starch (a complex carb) into sugars like glucose and maltose.
The amylase enzymes in mangoes become more active as the fruit ripens. This is why mangoes become sweeter as they start to ripen (9).
Amylase enzymes are also made by the pancreas and salivary glands. They help break down carbs so that they are easily absorbed by the body.
That’s why it’s often recommended to chew food thoroughly before swallowing, as amylase enzymes in saliva help break down carbs for easier digestion and absorption (10).
Summary Mangoes contain the digestive enzyme amylase, which breaks down carbs from starch (a complex carb) into sugars like glucose and maltose. Amylase also helps mangoes ripen.
This delicious liquid is rich in many beneficial compounds, including digestive enzymes (12).
- Diastases: Break down starch into maltose
- Amylases: Break down starch into sugars like glucose and maltose
- Invertases: Break down sucrose, a type of sugar, into glucose and fructose
- Proteases: Break down proteins into amino acids
Make sure that you’re buying raw honey if you’re seeking its digestive health benefits. Processed honey is often heated, and high heat can destroy digestive enzymes.
Summary Honey contains a variety of digestive enzymes, including diastase, amylase, invertase and protease. Just make sure to purchase raw honey, as it is not exposed to high heat. Processed honey may be heated, which destroys digestive enzymes.
Bananas are another fruit that contains natural digestive enzymes.
They contain amylases and glucosidases, two groups of enzymes that break down complex carbs like starch into smaller and more easily absorbed sugars (17).
On top of their enzyme content, bananas are a great source of dietary fiber, which may aid digestive health. A medium banana (118 grams) provides 3.1 grams of fiber (20).
A two-month study in 34 women looked at the connection between eating bananas and the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
Women who ate two bananas daily experienced a modest, non-significant rise in healthy gut bacteria. However, they did experience significantly less bloating (21).
Summary Bananas contain amylases and glucosidases, two enzymes that digest complex starches into easily absorbed sugars. They are more active as bananas start to ripen, which is why yellow bananas are much sweeter than green bananas.
Unlike other fruits, avocados are unique in that they are high in healthy fats and low in sugar.
They contain the digestive enzyme lipase. This enzyme helps digest fat molecules into smaller molecules, such as fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb (22).
Lipase is also made by your pancreas, so you don’t need to get it from your diet. However, taking a lipase supplement can help ease digestion, especially after a high-fat meal (23).
Summary Avocados contain the digestive enzyme lipase, which breaks down fat molecules into smaller fatty acids and glycerol. Although lipase is made by the body, consuming avocados or taking a lipase supplement may ease digestion after a high-fat meal.
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that is popular in the natural health community.
It’s made by adding kefir “grains” to milk. These “grains” are actually cultures of yeast, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria that resemble a cauliflower (26).
During fermentation, bacteria digest the natural sugars in milk and convert them into organic acids and carbon dioxide. This process creates conditions that help the bacteria grow but also adds nutrients, enzymes and other beneficial compounds (27).
Summary Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that contains many digestive enzymes, including lipases, proteases and lactases. These enzymes break down fat, protein and lactose molecules, respectively.
Sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage that has a distinct sour taste.
The fermentation process also adds digestive enzymes, which makes eating sauerkraut a great way to increase your intake of digestive enzymes (32).
Many studies have shown that consuming probiotics can ease digestive symptoms, such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea and stomach pain, in both healthy adults and those with IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (35, 36, 37, 38).
Just make sure to eat raw or unpasteurized sauerkraut rather than cooked sauerkraut. High temperatures may deactivate its digestive enzymes.
Summary Sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage that is rich in many digestive enzymes. The probiotic properties of sauerkraut may help ease digestive symptoms.
Kimchi is a spicy Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables.
As with sauerkraut and kefir, the fermentation process adds healthy bacteria, which provide nutrients, enzymes and other benefits (39).
Aside from aiding digestion, kimchi has been linked to many other health benefits. It may be especially effective at lowering cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors (42).
In a study in 100 young, healthy participants, scientists found that those who ate the most kimchi experienced the greatest reduction in total blood cholesterol. Elevated total blood cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease (43).
Summary Like sauerkraut, kimchi is another dish made from fermented vegetables. It’s fermented with bacteria of the Bacillus species, which tend to add enzymes, such as proteases, lipases and amylases.
Miso is a popular seasoning in Japanese cuisine.
That’s one reason why miso may improve the ability to digest and absorb foods.
In fact, studies have shown that the bacteria in miso can reduce symptoms linked to digestive problems, such as irritable bowel disease (IBD) (49).
Moreover, fermenting soybeans helps improve their nutritional quality by reducing their antinutrient content. Antinutrients are compounds found naturally in foods that may hinder the absorption of nutrients by binding to them (50).
Summary Miso is a popular seasoning in Japanese cuisine that’s made by fermenting soybeans. It’s fermented with the fungi koji, which adds digestive enzymes, such as lactases, lipases, proteases and amylases.
The kiwifruit is an edible berry that is often recommended to ease digestion (51).
Additionally, kiwifruit contains many other enzymes that help ripen the fruit (54).
Scientists believe actinidain is one reason why kiwifruits seem to aid digestion.
An animal study found that adding kiwifruit to the diet improved the digestion of beef, gluten and soy protein isolates in the stomach. This was thought to be due to its actinidain content (55).
Another animal study analyzed the effects of actinidain on digestion. It fed some animals kiwifruit with active actinidain and other animals kiwifruit without active actinidain.
Results showed that animals fed kiwifruit with active actinidain digested meat more efficiently. The meat also moved faster through the stomach (56).
Summary Kiwifruit contains the digestive enzyme actinidain, which helps digest proteins. Moreover, consuming kiwifruit may ease digestive symptoms like bloating and constipation.
Ginger has been a part of cooking and traditional medicine for thousands of years.
Some of ginger’s impressive health benefits may be attributed to its digestive enzymes.
Ginger contains the protease zingibain, which digests proteins into their building blocks. Zingibain is used commercially to make ginger milk curd, a popular Chinese dessert (61).
Unlike other proteases, it’s not often used to tenderize meats, as it has a short shelf life (62).
Food sitting in the stomach for too long is often thought to be the cause of indigestion.
Animal studies have also shown that spices, including ginger, helped increase the body's own production of digestive enzymes like amylases and lipases (65).
Summary Ginger contains the digestive enzyme zingibain, which is a protease. It may aid digestion by helping food move faster through the digestive tract and boosting the body’s own production of digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down larger molecules like fats, proteins and carbs into smaller molecules that are easier to absorb across the small intestine.
Without sufficient digestive enzymes, the body is unable to digest food particles properly, which may lead to food intolerances.
Digestive enzymes can be obtained from supplements or naturally through foods.
Foods that contain natural digestive enzymes include pineapples, papayas, mangoes, honey, bananas, avocados, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kiwifruit and ginger.
Adding any of these foods to your diet may help promote digestion and better gut health.