A Tough Act to Swallow: Salivary Enzyme Not for Everyone These Days, Colorado State University Researchers Say

An enzyme in saliva that once helped humans digest starch from grasses and other indigestible foods without having to swallow them has disappeared from some people over time.

Instead, humans obtain the same enzyme, known as the pancreatic enzyme, from their small intestine to enable them to digest starch.

A fun, simple test conducted by Colorado State University researchers at the National Western Stock Show on Sunday, Jan. 22 will tell who still has the enzyme in their saliva and who doesn’t.

Researchers will be at the Colorado State booth in the stock show’s Expo Hall to explain the genetics involved and to conduct the two-minute test. Results will be displayed above the booth, which is on the third floor in the southeast corner of the Expo Hall. The National Western Complex is at 4655 Humboldt St. in Denver.

Participants will get a badge that identifies whether they have the enzyme.

"The salivary enzyme is probably a throwback to the early days of evolution when humans, or their progenitors, chewed indigestible things like grasses, and could digest out the starch and spit out the cellulose," said Marv Paule, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology within Colorado State’s College of Natural Sciences. "However, there is a fairly high percentage of individuals who have lost the salivary enzyme. It really isn’t necessary any more."

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the partnership between Colorado State University and the National Western Stock Show. The university has had an intimate role with the stock show since showing the first grand champion steer in 1906.