Milk Enzymes

This page briefly describes the general properties of enzymes present in milk. Enzymes are proteins that have biological functions. Milk enzymes come from several sources: the native milk, airborne bacterial contamination, bacteria that are added intentionally for fermentation, or in somatic cells present in milk. For more details on milk enzymes see references by Farkye (2003), Fox and McSweeney (1998), Pruitt (2003), and Whitney (1988).

Each enzyme has a specific site of action on its target molecule, and optimal conditions (pH and temperature). There are a large number of enzymes in milk and the functions of many are not well-defined. It should be noted that the enzymes in milk do not make a major contribution to the digestion of milk in humans, which is accomplished by enzymes in the human stomach and small intestine.

Lipases are enzymes that degrade fats. The major lipase in milk is lipoprotein lipase. It is associated with the casein micelle. Agitation during processing may bring the lipase into contact with the milk fat resulting in fat degradation and off-flavors. Pasteurization will inactivate the lipase in milk and increase shelf life.

Proteases are enzymes that degrade proteins. The major protease in milk is plasmin. Some proteases are inactivated by heat and some are not. Protein degradation can be undesirable and result in bitter off-flavors, or it may provide a desirable texture to cheese during ripening. Proteases are important in cheese manufacture, and a considerable amount of information is available in the cheese literature.

Alkaline phosphatase is a heat sensitive enzyme in milk that is used as indicator of pasteurization. If milk is properly pasteurized, alkaline phosphatase is inactivated.

Lactoperoxidase is one of the most heat-stable enzymes found in milk. Lactoperoxidase, when combined with hydrogen peroxide and thiocyanate, has antibacterial properties. It is suggested that the presence of lactoperoxidase in raw milk inhibits the disease causing microorganisms (pathogens) present in milk. However, since there is no hydrogen peroxide or thiocyanate present in fresh milk, these compounds would have to be added to milk in order to achieve the antibacterial benefits. Lysozyme is another enzyme that has some antibacterial activities, although the amount of lysozyme present in milk is very small.