You'd probably never put much thought into your digestive enzymes — that is, the molecules in your gut that help break down your food — unless they're not working so well. If you're not able to break down food properly, though, your body can't absorb it, which can lead to health issues.
That's where digestive enzyme supplements come in. For some people, these supplements may help the body break down certain foods that it has trouble with, easing digestive symptoms and helping them better absorb nutrients.
But these products aren't for everyone.
Here's a look at who would benefit from these enzymes, what to look for in a supplement and the best products to buy based on your needs and budget.
- Best Overall: Healthy Origins Digestive Enzymes ($28.77; Amazon.com)
- Best on a Budget: NOW Optimal Digestive System ($13.25; Amazon.com)
- Best for IBS: Beano ($14.30; Amazon.com)
- Best Vegan: Garden of Life Organic Chewable Enzyme Supplement ($22.39; Amazon.com)
- Best for Lactose Intolerance: Kirkland Fast Acting Lactase ($21.68; Amazon.com)
Who Needs Digestive Enzymes?
As tempting as it is to self-diagnose with a simple internet search, it's always a good idea to get your doctor's opinion before you turn to a supplement (or any other treatment) for digestive issues. That's especially true for digestive enzymes, because there's no evidence to show that these supplements work for many digestive problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Research supports using them in these cases, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Lactose intolerance, or trouble digesting milk and other dairy products
- Poor tolerance to galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), or trouble digesting beans, cruciferous vegetables and some grains
- Impaired pancreatic function from conditions like pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis or diabetes
If you fall into the third category, however, your doctor will likely prescribe you a specially formulated mix, so you won't need an over-the-counter supplement.
If you have a healthy diet and no digestive issues, you don't need to take a digestive enzyme. If you have noticed some uncomfortable side effects from eating certain foods, make an appointment with your doctor, who can make a diagnosis and treatment plan.
What to Look for in a Digestive Enzyme Supplement
First, it's important to keep in mind that the FDA does not closely regulate supplements, meaning it doesn't guarantee supplements on shelves are safe, effective or contain the ingredients they claim.
With that said, here are two things you should look for in an enzyme supplement before buying:
1. Third-Party Tested
Third-party testing means that a lab — other than one associated with the supplement company — is testing the product to ensure it contains what it claims, meaning not only the ingredients, but also the quantity of those ingredients.
Most often, third-party labs will also check for heavy metal contamination and to ensure that the supplement will break down in your body, so it can be absorbed properly.
The FDA also has a program that supplement companies can participate in, called current good manufacturing practices (CGMP). This is essentially a quality control program, but it's voluntary, meaning the companies aren't required to participate.
If a supplement has been third-party tested and/or follows CGMPs, you'll usually see a seal of some kind on the bottle.
Digestive enzymes can contain a wide variety of ingredients, and unless you know exactly what you're looking for, you might choose one that doesn't fit your digestive needs. Because digestive enzymes are released when you eat certain foods, you may not need all of the digestive enzymes offered. For example, if you are lactose intolerant and looking for a lactase supplement, you probably don't need a supplement for fat digestion.
Here's a cheat sheet of different types of digestive enzymes and what they do:
- Amylase: Carbohydrate digestion
- Protease: Protein digestion
- Lipase: Fat digestion
- Lactase: Lactose (milk sugar) digestion
- Alpha-Galactosidase: Galacto-oligosaccharide digestion (in foods like cruciferous vegetables and beans)
- Bromelain and Papain: Digestive enzymes from pineapple and papaya, respectively
- Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus oryzae: Digestive enzymes derived from fungus and found in many vegan supplements
Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements
1. Best Overall: Healthy Origins Digestive Enzymes
Healthy Origins' digestive enzymes have been third-party tested by Consumer Lab, which verified the supplement contains what it claims on the label in the correct amounts. This supplement contains a blend of all macronutrient digestive enzymes (macros are carbs, protein and fat, for the record), as well as alpha-galactosidase and lactase.
This supplement is produced in a CGMP facility and comes in at an affordable price point. It checks all the boxes for what you might be looking for in a quality supplement and gets the best overall pick.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $28.77 for 180 capsules
2. Best on a Budget: NOW Optimal Digestive System
NOW Optimal Digestive System has a blend of plant-based enzymes to help with carbohydrate, fat and protein digestion. It also contains alpha-galactosidase for extra help with digesting high gas-producing foods.
This supplement company adheres to CGMP set by the FDA and is free of many of the major allergens — soy, nuts, dairy and eggs. NOW Optimal Digestive System has also been approved by Consumer Lab, which means it contains the list of enzymes on the bottle in the amounts specified.
The pill size is medium to large, so keep that in mind when choosing a supplement if you have difficulty swallowing larger pills.
This supplement is an affordable option for a pure plant-based supplement.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $13.25 for 90 capsules
3. Best for IBS: Beano
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of research surrounding the efficacy of digestive enzymes for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to experts at Monash University (where the low-FODMAP diet for IBS was developed), the majority of research with IBS and enzymes includes lactase and alpha-galactosidase. Digestive enzymes may help when used along with other therapies, such as diet changes.
If you have IBS, then you may be sensitive to foods containing galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). GOS are found in foods like cashews, pistachios, soy, green peas and legumes. A study out of Monash University looked at the effects of alpha-galactosidase when taken before and with meals, and found a significant reduction in IBS symptoms, according to a January 2018 paper in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
Beano, even with the funny name, is an effective alpha-galactosidase supplement that may be able to ease IBS symptoms like bloating associated with high-GOS foods.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $14.30 for 100 tablets
4. Best Vegan: Garden of Life Organic Chewable Enzyme Supplement
Garden of Life digestive enzymes are certified vegan through a third party, USDA organic, gluten-free and formulated by a neurologist. Not only do you get a blend of plant-based digestive enzymes, you also get fruits and vegetables to aid in digestive health, and lactase to help break down dairy.
Garden of Life is a well-known and respected brand for plant-based supplements. They tend to be a little pricier, but if you prefer an organic vegan supplement you can feel confident in, the extra cost may be worth your peace of mind.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $22.39 for 90 Chewable Tablets
5. Best for Lactose Intolerance: Kirkland Fast Acting Lactase
When you eat something with higher amounts of lactose — milk, ice cream, yogurt —the lactose is broken down in your body to glucose and galactose. Lactase is the enzyme responsible for taking care of this for you. In some cases, you may not make enough lactase to break down all the lactose you're eating. If this is you, the digestive issues that come with eating dairy (like bloating, gas, nausea or diarrhea) are your first clue there might be an issue.
If you have confirmed that lactose is the problem, you should consider taking a digestive aid that contains lactase if you wish to continue eating dairy. Kirkland Fast Acting Lactase is Consumer Lab-approved for containing the listed enzymes in the appropriate amounts, and it was also tested for disintegration, which means it will break down in your body quickly.
It's also an affordable option, especially if you are using it often.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $21.68
- Cleveland Clinic: "Digestive Enzymes 101: Why They're Important"
- Monash University: "Digestive Enzymes and IBS"
- American Journal of Gastroenterology: "Increasing Symptoms in Irritable Bowel Symptoms With Ingestion of Galacto-Oligosaccharides Are Mitigated by α-Galactosidase Treatment"
- Consumer Lab Reviews
- Consumer Lab: "Digestive Enzyme Supplement Review"