Human amylase is a digestive enzyme that breaks starches into sugars. It is produced primarily in the pancreas and salivary glands. Various forms of this enzyme are produced by a number of animals that rely on starch for part of their diet. Without conversion by amylase, the energy bound up in starch would not be available for the body to use. Testing can determine how much the body is producing, which can indicate the presence of disease in some cases.
In the mouth, human amylase is one of the enzymes that starts to digest food before it even starts to travel down the esophagus. People may notice that as they chew, the flavor profile of food changes as a result of digestive enzymes. The amylase in the saliva tends to make starchy foods taste sweeter as they are chewed, because the enzyme is producing sugars from the carbohydrate chains. Saliva swabbing can be used to check human amylase levels and to look for other enzymes.
Pancreatic human amylase is made along with other digestive enzymes in the pancreas. As food moves through the digestive tract, the pancreas release these enzymes to break it down into components the body can use. Most digestive amylase is made in the pancreas. When the pancreas is inflamed or otherwise injured or diseased, the level of serum amylase in the blood can rise. This is a warning indicator that there is something wrong with the pancreas.
Several forms of human amylase are produced: alpha, beta, and gamma. These serve different functions in the digestion tract although they are all related. Genes code for the production of different kinds of digestive enzymes. Errors in genetic coding can result in problems with metabolism because the body may lack the enzymes it needs to digest certain foods. In these patients, foods like starches are not as nutritionally useful because the body cannot process them.
Other organisms like yeast also produce amylase for their own digestive processes. In fermentation processes like bread making and brewing, products with amylase may be added to speed the breakdown of starches. As the enzyme works, it makes the product sweeter over time. The level of fermentation can be closely controlled to produce a specifically desired texture and flavor. Humans have been taking advantage of this digestive enzyme in food preparation for centuries, far longer than they were aware that they produced a form of it themselves.