Digestive Enzymes: Exploring the Use of Various Plant-Derived Proteases

Digestive Enzyme History 

Gastric digestion studies date back to the early 1800s, when pepsin was discovered. In the presence of stomach acid, pepsin caused proteins like meat or coagulated egg white to break down. 

Pepsin was initially isolated and purified as a substance to support digestive disorders. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, almost 100 years later, that a synthetic version became available and was identified as a protease. Protease enzymes help break down proteins into smaller protein fragments known as peptides and amino acids. 

The discovery of plant-derived enzymes also dates back to the early 1800s, when Anselme Payne and Jean-Francois Persoz described diastase, an enzyme that was able to separate insoluble starchy liquid into a soluble substance. Today, we know this enzyme as amylase; it helps to break down starch to sugar.1

Examples and Uses of Plant-Derived Enzymes 

In addition to the animal-derived and synthetic versions of enzymes on the market, many plant-derived proteases exist, including bromelain, papain, actinidin, and ficin. 


Bromelain is a complex mixture of protease that is derived from a pineapple plant's fruit or stem. Bromelain has many applications and is known for its anti-inflammatory benefits as well as blood clot reduction. It has also been shown to support the immune system, wound healing, and the health of the circulatory system.2 


Papain is a proteolytic enzyme extracted from the raw fruit of the papaya plant. Papain is popular both as an ingredient in meat tenderizer and as a traditional folk remedy to support a healthy inflammatory response. It has also been used to improve digestion and minimize seasonal allergies. Papain is also being studied for potential use in the treatment of many diseases.1


Actinidin, a protease, is the main enzyme found in kiwifruit that can play a role in aiding digestion. Research reports this plant enzyme promotes antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Actinidin can also support nutritional status and digestive, immune, and metabolic health.3 


Ficin, a nonspecific plant enzyme, is derived from the fig tree. It has many uses, including production of stitching material, in blood typing, and as a meat tenderizer in the food industry, often in combination with papain or bromelain. Traditionally, ficin has been used to manage digestive health, specifically pathogens. Ficin has also been helpful in breaking down biofilms, a barrier created by pathogens that may provide protection to microbes against antimicrobials.4 

Whether from animals or plants, proteases provide us with a variety of different enzymes. Interestingly, their uses are just as versatile as their sources. These compounds have the ability to support digestive function, act as powerful antioxidants, and support a healthy immune system. 


  1. Fruton JS. A history of pepsin and related enzymes. Q Rev Biol. 2002;77(2):127-147 
  2. Rathnavelu, V., Alitheen, N., Sohila, S. Eat al. Potential Role of Bromalain In Clinical and Therapeutic Applications. Biomed Rep. 2016 Sep;5(3):283-288. 
  3. Ciacci, C, Russo, T. Bucci, C et al. The kiwi fruit peptide kissper displays anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects in in-vitro and ex-vivo human intestinal models. Clin Exp Immunol. 2014 Mar;175(3):476-484. 
  4. Baidamshina, D. Trizna, E., Holyavka, M, et al. Targeting Microbial Biofilms using Ficin: a nonspecific plant protease. Sci Rep. 2017;7:46068.