BCAA supplements: Helpful or hype? Experts sound in on the popular fitness product

If you’re taking them hoping for a miracle, you may want to check in with the research.

If you’re taking them hoping for a miracle, you may want to check in with the research

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Improving your health and fitness takes commitment and patience. Anything that promises to help you along can be really tempting. If you've ever strolled down the supplement aisle at the health food store, there are plenty of powders and pills all promising to get you where you want to be, but faster. In that aisle, you may have come across products labelled BCAAs (or Branched-Chain Amino Acids), which claim to help you work out harder or recover from your workouts faster. But are they worth the buzz? We reached out to nutritionist Kyle Byron and sports dietician Ashley Leone, owner of Gazelle Nutrition Lab, to find out exactly what BCAAs are, how they work and if they're worth the investment for you.

What are BCAAs?

To understand what branched-chain amino acids are, we have to first know about proteinogenic amino acids in general. "Proteinogenic amino acids are the building blocks of protein," says Leone, "There are two main types of proteinogenic amino acids: essential amino acids, of which there are 9, and non-essential amino acids," of which there are 11. The non-essential amino acids are "non-essential" because they can be made by your body. 

BCAA's are considered essential amino acids. They're made up of three separate essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine — and are called "branched-chain" because of their molecular structure. Essential amino acids aren't produced internally, "which means the body can't make them," says Byron, "so we have to eat them." That's what makes it "essential" that we get them in our diets.

What do BCAAs do in the body?

Since they're parts of protein, BCAAs do the "same thing that all proteins do," says Byron. "They help with structure, transport, signalling, many metabolic processes. So if we are deficient in proteins, we don't function very well as humans." More specifically, Leone notes that BCAAs "are of interest to those who want to build muscle, because of their role in protein synthesis and turnover, and energy regulation. BCAAs also play a role in glucose metabolism and immune and brain function."

Why do people take BCAA supplements?

Byron says that BCAAs supplements often claim to improve muscle gains and exercise performance. Leone says people them "to help improve muscle growth and repair and help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness." The general theory is that because BCAAs are essential and play such an integral role in muscle function, that supplementing with even more of them will yield greater and/or faster results.

What forms do BCAA supplements come in?

BCAA supplements often come in pill or powder form and can sometimes be bundled together with other supplements, such as glutamine and creatine. "The powder might absorb better," explains Byron, but, due to flavouring and colouring, the powder may also contain more potentially harmful ingredients. 

"All supplements run the risk of contamination with unlisted ingredients," warns Leone, "Extra sugar and even artificial sweeteners may be a concern for some athletes. Also, supplements are regularly recalled for infractions such as excess amounts of vitamin D, A, B6, and selenium because these substances are potentially toxic in large amounts." To ensure the safety of any supplement you're taking, it's good to know that it's third party tested. Leone suggests: "One handy way to check, though not guarantee, the safety of a supplement is to see if it is listed on the NSF International Certified for Sport site."

Depending on what's in them, BCAA supplements can vary in calories, but ultimately do count towards your daily protein intake.

Do they work? What does the science say?

Some studies have been able to find some benefits. A 2018 study found that BCAA supplementation may decrease muscle soreness after exercise, but, when consumed alongside a diet of adequate protein, the results are "likely negligible". In a 2011 study, participants reported reduced perceived exertion but they didn't actually improve their aerobic performance. A 2017 review of the literature on the subject ultimately concluded that "that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted."

More to the point of practical BCAA supplement use, Leone states, "There is no evidence that amino acids that are taken in a form that is separate from food is superior to amino acids provided from eating food. Preliminary results appear to support the importance of BCAAs in your diet, but generally do not appear to support free form supplementation. In all likelihood, BCAA supplements offer no benefit in those who are meeting their daily protein needs."

If the results are so negligible/minimal, why are so many athletes/active people supplementing with BCAAs?

Despite the lack of concrete evidence, Byron believes BCAA supplementation continues is this: "Because supplement companies take a bit of promising research and then hype it up, creating fear in the training population, and then it sells. Sales of BCAAs have diminished in the past two years as more research on them became available." 

Leone adds that because elite athletes "are trying to squeeze out every potential performance advantage… [they] often use nutrition products that are deemed to be safe, but may have little to no benefit. In addition, many athletes have little to no understanding of how much BCAAs they are getting in their diet from the foods that they eat." 

That misunderstanding seems to be at the core of the issue — that more is better. But, as Leone explains, "Taking a supplement that provides BCAAs over and above what you get in your diet is unlikely to provide additional benefit, in much the same way putting more gas in your car than your gas tank can hold is not likely to improve your gas mileage." 

How much protein is enough to know you're getting adequate amounts of amino acids?

As a rough rule of thumb for calculating how much protein you need if you're an active individual, Byron suggests taking your body weight (or what it would be if you have a target goal), and calculating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. So, so a 200 pound individual would require a daily intake of 200 grams of protein. A non-active individual can eat around half that amount (0.5 grams per pound). To find your specific recommended protein intake, it's best to consult with a nutritionist.

Is it ultimately better to get all your protein from whole food sources?

Whole food protein may be better than supplementation for a few reasons. Leone lists that whole foods might be more economical (since supplementation can be costly), might help avoid unnecessary ingredients (since the supplement industry is poorly regulated), and that whole foods also contain additional nutrients that supplements don't. "For example," Leone explains, "red meats and tofu are a great source of iron, fatty fish is a good source of heart-healthy omega-3's, and legumes and nuts provide you with fibre. This strategy will also encourage you to make wise food choices and eat an overall healthier diet."

However, making sure you eat enough whole food protein can be difficult. "Most Canadians do not eat enough protein and thus do not have optimal function," says Byron, suggesting that, "Instead of supplementing with BCAAs (an incomplete protein), we should use protein powder (which are still complete protein sources), like whey, vegan or cricket protein." Your body thrives best off of "complete" proteins, which contain all of the necessary amino acids. 

If you're on a specific diet where it's harder to get adequate protein, is supplementing with BCAAs more beneficial then?

Certain circumstances can restrict you from getting adequate protein or essential amino acids and, in those cases, you may require a supplement. "Supplements are particularly helpful for those who have long-term have illnesses that affect their appetite, like some cancers and liver disease," says Leone, "If you are on a special diet, or suffer from a chronic medical condition, you should consult with a dietitian to work out a diet that is right for your needs."

Putting it all together

While BCAA supplements might have some benefits in particular situations, they're a far cry from being a guaranteed boost to your health and fitness. Ultimately BCAAs, like all supplements, effective or not, are supplements, in that they serve to support a base. And that base, like always, is a balanced and nutritious diet.

Have you used BCAA supplements before? What's your review? Are there other fitness supplements you want us to look at? Let us know in the comments below.