Enzymes can be defined as proteins with very specific powers of catalysis. The enhancement in reaction rate is very high and may be as much as 1014-fold in some instances. Although all enzymes are proteins, some require an additional small molecule, called a coenzyme or cofactor (cofactors can be metal ions or small organic molecules), to function. The role of enzymes in cells means that growth, maturation, storage, processing, and consumption-digestion of food all depend on various enzyme activities. In plants, enzymes are responsible for changes associated with ripening, including alterations in color, flavor, and texture. Enzymatic changes continue after harvesting of plants and also after the death of animals, for example, in the conversion of muscle to meat. These changes affect subsequent food quality. In many cases the action of endogenous enzymes is arrested or controlled by processing and storage.

Enzymes are also widely used to provide desirable changes in food quality attributes through changes in the chemical structure of food components. Enzymes have significant advantages over chemical catalysts, of which the most important are specificity and the ability to work at moderate temperatures. As a consequence, side reactions are minimized, and undesirable changes caused by harsh conditions are averted. Enzymes have traditionally been obtained from their natural sources: animals, plants, and microorganisms. Advances in molecular biology have led to the cloning and expression of enzymes from many sources into microorganisms (primarily yeasts and fungi) that are efficient producers and regarded as safe hosts. The value of enzymes used in food processing is already several hundred million dollars per annum and will likely expand as new applications are discovered or improved enzymes become available, for example, by genetic engineering to improve operating characteristics such as the pH-activity profile or thermostability.

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