Enzymes, Raw Food and Digestion


Enzymes are products of living organisms and are designed to create a particular chemical reaction. They are responsible for the chemical reactions in the cells of living things. This could be a reaction such as breaking down a molecule or alternatively, speeding up a reaction.

There are three main classes of enzymes:

  1. Metabolic – these are enzymes that helps various processes in the body to keep it running smoothly

  2. Digestive – these are enzymes that assist in the digestion of our food

  3. Raw foods – these enzymes are naturally occurring in raw (and therefore unheated or heat-processed) foods and initiate food digestion

A Limited Amount

We are all born with a certain amount of enzymes in our bodies, and they need to last us through our lifetime. These enzymes are necessary for processes in our bodies, notably for the digestive process. Basically everything we eat needs to be broken down for absorption. Either our body provides the enzymes, using the enzymes from our “enzyme bank”, or the food which we are eating provides the enzymes, theoretically saving our limited enzymes for another meal. Often, there is a mixture of both happening. However, if one eats a highly processed diet, without any fresh fruits or veggies, which can be considered more tasking on the body to break down and digest the consumed food.

The Argument for Raw Food

The proponents of consuming raw food stress the benefits of preserving the enzymes by not exposing food to heat over 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Dehydrating or drying foods under this temperature can still preserve some of the enzymes and enzyme activity. The idea that consuming processed foods, completely depleted of enzymes, for every meal all of the time, has some validity when it comes to being a decision that may be ill-suited for optimal health.

A good example illustrating the importance of enzymes in raw foods is that of an avocado. An avocado has plenty of fat, but in raw form, also contains the enzyme, lipase, which is responsible for helping the breakdown of fats. So, a person eating a salad containing a few tablespoons of heat (possibly chemically) refined canola oil is consuming a very different fat intake than a person eating a salad with a few tablespoons of raw avocado. All calories are not equal. We need to take into account the other nutrients and thus, ant nutrients, of the foods being consumed. That’s not to say you have to ban refined canola oil forever and ever. It just means to be aware of what you are consuming so that you can make the best and informed decisions for your health.

What About Raw Meat?

Some advocates for raw food have also sited certain cultures who consume meat raw, without cooking, smoking, or changing the meat in any way, as being inclusive as vegetables and fruit to the raw food diet. While intellectually I can understand why this theory stands, when looking at the average Western society, it may not be such a good idea. Our bodies have gotten used to the cooked foods, the killing of bacteria (good and bad), and our systems may not be best suited for consuming meat in such a way. Additionally, the meat industry in general is not the most reputable (although there are responsible companies out there). Safety standards are put in place regarding the process of cooked meat, not at all accounting for consuming the meat raw.

While it may be true that cooking (heating) foods over a certain temperature for a long period of time does kill all the enzymes, there is another side to things. Cooking some foods, such as carrots and tomatoes, allows the nutrients in these foods to become more bioavailable for our bodies to absorb. Enzymes might be killed, but vitamins and other phytonutrients (think plant power) are activiated.


Cooked or Raw?

So, what to do? As cliché as it is, the slogan ‘everything in moderation’ has a place here. Honestly, my digestive system isn’t so keen on raw onions, so I prefer mine cooked. Choking down raw food every day when you simply want a cooked version does not create an environment of health and happiness for the whole you. The key is to form a relationship with our bodies and learn the signs and signals of what works and what doesn’t. Equally, we can balance the amounts of raw foods we consume with the amount of cooked foods we intake.

Supplements to Support Enzyme Loss

Supplements are available, especially when it comes to assisting with digestion. Many supplements use the bile of animals (if it is not a vegetarian supplement), which is hard to swallow – literally. Other options come from fruits we may even have in our own kitchen. Papain is a naturally occurring enzyme found in papaya, whereas bromelain is found in pineapples.

Enzymes have an important role in our health, and so supplementing over time may have a place in our future. In his book, Enzyme Nutrition, Dr. Howell indicates positive outcomes for enzyme treatment for such conditions as arthritis, allergic eczema, indigestion, allergic colitis, heart disease, and even situations of cancer.

Professionals can help guide us and diets with grand health claims mean well, but we are the ones who ultimately feel what works and what doesn’t. If you have ailments surrounding your digestion, or other concerns regarding undiagnosed symptoms, looking into a digestive enzyme may not be a bad idea.

Please note that this article is meant to be an introduction to the concept of enzymes, and is by no means comprehensive.

*DISCLAIMER: As indicated throughout The Nourished Seedling, the information presented here is solely for informational purposes, not intended to diagnose or cure any disease. As with any change in diet or supplement program, it is advised to always consult your healthcare professional when making these decisions.


Howell, Edward. Enzyme Nutrition: The Food Enzyme Concept. Avery, 1985.

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