BCAAs the whey to go?


The guy at my local supplement store’s tried to sell me a BCAA supplement over my whey protein. He said BCAAs work better, I’m confused about which one I should take?

The branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) are indeed an important subcategory of the 8 essential amino acids. The BCAAs are shown to be key regulators of muscle protein synthesis (the underlying mechanism of recovery & regeneration) but also, gluconiogenic. That is, when ever energy stores are low these are the amino acids sacrificed first to restore blood glucose levels.

Hence the BCAAs have received a lot of attention in the bodybuilding and Sports Science communities for their importance in muscle metabolism and capability to influence results from intense training.  

Now consider that high quality whey protein supplements (80%+ concentrates and isolates) provide the richest known concentration of BCAAs – in fact, whey protein’s entire amino acid profile is 20-30% BCAA (that’s around 20 grams BCAA per 100g serving). The BCAA’s in whey are also in a peptide form which appears to be absorbed faster and in greater amounts than free-form or “single” amino acids as in BCAA supplement formulations.

To build a physique takes quality protein & lots of it, not a select few amino acids - MP Specialist Justin Perillo

If you’re old enough, you may remember when free-form amino acids hit the sports nutrition market place way back in the 1980’s. Even back then they were very expensive to manufacture, highly unstable in liquid and tasted like battery acid, still do.

Free-form amino acids quickly faded from the market place as soon as whey protein supplements found their way from infant formulations into bodybuilders’ gym bags. As manufacturing practices quickly improved, the sports nutrition industry exploded with a plentiful supply and much lower production costs. Whey's unique solubility, neutral taste and capacity to boost glutathione made it a great base product for many sports nutrition product formulations.

Based on this information, you might be wondering how and why BCAA supplements ever made it back on to the market place.

From about 2004, the sports nutrition supplement landscape changed rather dramatically.

Creatine supplements had restored consumer faith that something they bought, actually worked. However, others products such as ephedra-based, had been banned in a rather sensational series of events. Sports nutrition supplements in general became more heavily scrutinized. Additionally, poor quality control practices were being highlighted by the media (probably for the first time).

In more recent years there’s been a huge lag in production and spiraling costs of whey protein manufacture - both attributed to an ever-exploding consumer application and sports supplement market place.

On the back of improved flavouring technology that could mask that god-awful taste, free for BCAA supplements became a quick, easy option that manufacturers could get onto the market place with little fuss or scrutiny.

So to answer the question, how did BCAAs even make it on to the market place?

The simple reason is, because it could.

Definitely on a per serving basis, whey protein supplementation provides much better value, is more economical over a longer term, appear to be just as (if not more) effective and appear to provide additional health benefits BCAAs cannot.

A transformation like this comes from nutrition not supplements - MP Specialist Christina Brooks

Above all remember this; the No.1 name of the supplement game is to give the consumer something new…. It doesn’t have to be better, more effective, it doesn’t even have to be a good product, just different.

In doing so, the new product becomes another option to present to customers - another avenue to try get consumers to part with a dollar.

That’s business.

There is a lot of great data on the benefits of BCAAs. However, the reason BCAAs are often used in research is simply because more variables are controlled - no contaminants, other proteins or components (fats, carbs) that may influence results. 

For the consumer, compared to a decent whey protein supplement, are BCAAs more cost effective per serving? No.

Are BCAAs more economical over the longer term? No

Do BCAAs have any science/research-based advantages over whey proteins? No.

Do BCAAs provide any kind of unique benefit to consumers over whey proteins?

Maybe under some very specific, obscure circumstances that are probably not relevant to 99% of the market – and even those instances are very debatable.

Keep in mind, particularly when it comes to sports supplements, new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.

Hayes A, Cribb PJ. Invited Review: Effect of whey protein isolate on strength, body composition and muscle hypertrophy during resistance training. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2008 Jan;11(1):40-4.

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