BCCAs are one of the most popular sports supplements on the market right now, and have been for some time. Take a look at the website of your favourite go-to supplement brand and chances are they’ll offer a wide spectrum of different BCAA products in a range cool-sounding and admittedly (in some cases) delicious flavours.
But do BCAAs offer a genuine benefit to people looking to build muscle and/or drop fat, or are BCAAs products tantamount to expensive Orange Squash?
Let’s take a look at the evidence.
WHAT ARE BCAAS AND WHAT DO THEY DO?
We all know the spiel, BCAAs or Branched-Chain Amino Acids are the BUILDING BLOCKS of protein. But what does that actually mean?
Any Food that contains protein will include all or some of the 21 different Amino Acids in varying ratios.
Some of these Aminos Acids can be produced by the body, while others need to be derived from external sources, i.e. food (or extortionate supplements) for this reason, they’re referred to as essential Amino Acids.
BCAA supplements generally contain three essential Amino Acids;
These all do different jobs; Leucine is a catalyst for Muscle Protein Synthesis (creating muscle from ingested protein), Isoleucine aids the uptake of glucose into cells (making energy from food available for use), who knows what Valine does.
What each individual amino acid does is kind of beside the point; BCAAs are essentially protein in its absolute raw form, and so they ‘do’ the same thing as protein; i.e. help to build and repair muscle (if other criteria are met), but at a much, much higher cost.
HOW IS BCAA POWDER MADE?
I don’t really know.
Whey protein is made by removing almost all the carbs and fat from what is essentially powdered milk, so I guess making BCAA powder involves further processing, which is probably why they’re so expensive.
WHAT ARE THE SUPPOSED BENEFITS?
Let’s take a look at some of the packaging from a few major brands; My Protein, Scivation, Scitech Nutrition and BPI;
So what are the common themes here? Feel free to draw your own conclusions, but from what I can gather, these brands seem to claim that their poducts offer the following benefits;
- SUPPORT muscle growth
- Muscle Recovery
- Muscle Protein Synthesis
- Muscle Gain
- Muscle retention
You probably think I’m going to say all these claims are false and that supplement brands are trying to coax naive gym-goers out of their hard-earned cash.
Well guess what?
The claims aren’t false but if you buy BCAAs you ARE being cheated out of your hard-earned cash…
ARE THERE ANY STUDIES THAT SUPPORT THE USE OF BCAAS?
This study found that BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis.
That’s not really a surprise, we already know that protein does the same job (because protein IS BCAAs)
This study yielded similar results, but dietary intake wasn’t controlled so there will be too many variables to be confident that BCAAs were the sole cause of the reduction in muscle soreness.
BCAAS VS WHEY
N.B. I’m only comparing BCAA powder to Whey for the purposes of this article.
Don’t believe me?
Again, let’s take a look at the evidence
Here I’m comparing My Protein Impact Whey vs My Protein BCAAs (keeping the brand consistent to cut out any variables).
You can see that, based on a 25g serving, the calories and macronutrient ratios are virtually identical.
25g Impact Whey
Ok, the BCAAs have an additional 5g protein, which makes them 100% protein vs 78% for the Whey.
So why not just substitute Whey for BCAAs?
In 1kg of Impact Whey you get 780g of protein. 1kg of (flavoured) Whey costs £17.49, so each gram of protein costs 0.02p (or 50p per 25g serving).
In 1kg of BCAAs you get 1kg of protein (BCAAs are 100% protein remember). 1kg of BCAAs costs £42.99 so each gram of protein costs 0.04p (or £1 per 25g serving).
That makes My Protein BCAAs 100% more expensive than Whey gram for gram of protein.
BCAAs ARE ONE HUNDRED PERCENT MORE EXPENSIVE THAN WHEY. THAT’S DOUBLE THE PRICE PER GRAM OF PROTEIN.
N.B. I’ve only looked at BCCA powder here, I’d imagine the pills are even less cost-effective.
A lot of people will cite ‘preventing catabolism’ as a reason for using BCAAs, or that they use them at times when protein is restricted.
For me, this is a ridiculous argument, if you’re restricting protein, and replacing that protein with BCAAS, JUST EAT MORE PROTEIN.
It’s also important to note that Whey protein, by its very nature, contains BCAAs, So when you buy Whey you’re getting BCAAs anyway.
IS THERE ANY REASON TO USE THEM?
I find it very difficult to find any justification for using BCAAs, I really had to scrape the barrel, but here are a couple;
1.If you can get them for the same price (or cheaper) than Whey protein (unlikely).
2. If you’re really trying to maximise protein density in your diet, i.e. if you’re trying to get the maximum amount of protein for the least amount of calories. I’m thinking on the fly here but some examples of foods with high protein density might be Cottage Cheese, Total Greek 0% Yogurt, or Turkey
3. If you REALLY like the taste of BCAAs (some of the flavours are quite cool)
4. If You’re Vegan – this is because it’s difficult to get enough Leucine (one of the three amino acids in BCAAs) in a Vegan diet, I’ve written in much more detail about this here
5. If you’re making a recipe that requires flavours only available in BCAA products. I hear they make lovely ice lollies.
6. You recently won the lottery.
DO BCAAS HAVE CALORIES?
Yes. If you have 5g of BCCAs (which is a typical serving size), that’s 5g of protein, therefore, that’s 20 calories (there are 4 calories to every gram of protein).
If you were to have enough BCCA powder to reach the leucine threshold, you’d be looking at 20g of BCAAs, and 80 calories. Less calories than Whey for roughly the same amount of protein, but a LOT more expensive. You could argue that BCAAs could aid weight loss if you’re really clutching at straws but it really is marginal.
Contrary to popular belief BCAAs are NOT calorie-free, and therefore sipping BCAAs throughout your workout does not constitute ‘fasted training’, as many people seem to think.
BCAAs are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as Whey protein and therefore provide the same benefits.
At double the price, In my opinion, yes, they are a massive waste of money.
If you REALLY want to maximise the protein density in your diet, there are cheaper ways to do it – for example switch to Whey Protein Isolate instead of Concentrate, My Protein now do a decent and not-too-pricey Clear Whey, but in all honesty, the benefits are negligible when you consider the cost compared to good old regular whey protein concentrate.
Concentrate on hitting your target calories and protein, and the rest will sort itself out.