Branched-Chain Amino Acids: What You Need to Know
Collectively referred to as BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three essential amino acids most extensively studied for their athletic performance-enhancing properties. As essential amino acids, they cannot be synthesized by the human body and must therefore be obtained from food and supplementation. Although it is covered in-depth later on in this article, it is important to note that any amino-acid supplements MUST be fermented plant-based, such as, to be properly absorbed and utilized.
BCAA’s also represent no less than 35%-40% of the body’s total supply of amino acids, as well as a significant percentage of the amino acids stored in muscles.
Although it remains to be discovered how exactly BCAAs contribute to muscle growth, research has shown us that they undoubtedly work. In addition to protein and creatine, branched-chain amino acids are part and parcel of any athlete’s diet, and for a good reason. BCAAs have been demonstrated to:
- Enhance muscle growth
- Serve as building blocks for protein.
- Activate pathways that signal the body to begin protein synthesis
- Decrease protein breakdown both during and immediately after exercise, thereby minimizing muscle waste and soreness
- Reduce fatigue and therefore prolong workout sessions
- Speed up recovery time
- Encourage weight loss
The focus of this article, however, is more specific. The benefits of BCAAs have immediately caught the public eye, but this was not necessarily the case with the manufacturing process involved in making these supplements. One important question has thus far been left out, namely, how are amino acid supplements made?
Indeed, most consumers do not know that there are essentially two ways to extract leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The first is well-established, has been used for decades, and involves the chemical treatment of raw materials rich in protein. In contrast, the second is a recent discovery and relies on fermentation to transform sugar into amino acids. One method derives regular, synthesized BCAAs, while the other results in fermented, plant-based BCAAs. At a glance, the two might seem fairly similar, but upon closer inspection, the difference is tremendous. In what follows, I will discuss some of the reasons why.
#1 – Regular BCAAs are derived from human and animal waste
. The method took shape in the early 20th century when a researcher from Tokyo Imperial University first extracted MSG, a non-essential amino acid, from seaweed. Soon after the discovery, the Japanese food and chemical corporation Ajinomoto Co. began to derive MSG from acid-hydrolyzed wheat and soybean, thereby laying the foundation for the industrial production of amino acids. The method has since been improved for maximum efficiency and yield. For instance, to ensure the best results, manufacturers abandoned plant-based ingredients. They gradually turned to raw materials that were increasingly rich in protein, yielding more BCAA.
Today, regular BCAAs are extracted from inferior sources such as animal hair, skin, feathers, and human hair, rich in keratin, a type of protein that can be easily broken down into its component amino acids. Although of a lesser quality than the raw materials first used in the synthesis of BCAAs and other amino acids, these sources are considered either by-products or waste in other industries, making them particularly inexpensive to acquire in large quantities. On the other hand, most consumers remain unaware that they are buying BCAA made from human hair and other scrap materials, which stands as a testament to manufacturers’ ability to veil their products’ unpleasant aspects.
#2 – Fermented BCAAs are derived from superior sources
A recent, alternative way to derive BCAAs is using fermentation. Its first advantage is that the raw materials used in the process are cleaner and more sustainable. Initially, fermented BCAAs were derived from soybean, an accessible and relatively cheap ingredient that featured enough protein to yield a sufficient quantity of amino acids. However, because a percentage of consumers were and continue to be allergic to soy, other potential raw materials were soon discovered.
. This is possible due to the nature of the process itself, which makes it so that the raw materials involved are not necessarily required to contain large amounts of protein. Amino acids are not extracted from these ingredients but rather created through bacterial cultures, which can process sugar into desirable BCAAs. Fermented BCAAs are suitable for consumption with plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan diets and more sustainable because, unlike animal or human waste, their sources are clean and easy to replenish.
#3 – Regular BCAAs are extracted using toxic chemicals
The regular BCAA manufacturing process begins with a mix of raw materials rich in keratin. Still, for the extraction of amino acids, these protein sources must first be broken down into their components. Hydrolysis, the chemical breakdown of a compound through water reaction, is commonly employed, but it actually requires more than water to work despite its name. Like any chemical reaction, hydrolysis must be catalyzed through heat, other substances, or both.
In the case of regular BCAA manufacturing, keratin undergoes hydrolysis with activated charcoal and concentrated. The latter is a strong corrosive liquid with potentially devastating effects on the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. As such, once the extraction is complete, it must be washed out of the final product. This is done using water and other chemical compounds designed to interact with the alkali solution and render it neutral.
The process results in large amounts of wastewater, leading to protein degradation due to high pH conditions. Unwanted reactions frequently occur, leading to molecular rearrangements of the amino acids and potentially toxic compounds and lower nutritional values. From the substances used to the waste created and the questionable quality of the consumer’s final product, the entire manufacture is potentially hazardous. Still, it is inexpensive, and the chemical compounds employed are readily available, which explains why it continues to be practiced to this day.
#4 – Fermented BCAAs are obtained naturally
Unlike chemically-derived amino acids, fermented BCAAs are produced through biological processes, including synthesis and fermentation. Thus, although these methods also require catalysts to work, the latter is not chemical but enzymatic. In other words, the manufacture basically requires two components – the raw materials (corn or sugar cane) and a catalytic enzyme (a culture of bacteria that has been specifically studied and employed for the derivation of L-variants of leucine, isoleucine, and valine). When the two interact, the bacteria transform the sugar found in the raw materials in glucose or fructose into a broad spectrum of desirable amino acids.
The main drawback initially attached to the manufacture of plant-based BCAAs was the cost of acquiring the necessary enzymes. This, however, has changed over the past decade, as certain bacteria, such as, have been repeatedly selected and engineered for better yield with increased precision. The method remains relatively new, but the advantages of fermented BCAAs, on the other hand, are manifold.
To begin with, its production eliminates the use of toxic and potentially hazardous chemicals. Instead, it stimulates the fermentation process naturally within the human body and outside of it. In the absence of acid solutions and extreme temperatures, the mild conditions of fermentation help avoid any protein degradation commonly associated with regular BCAAs. Furthermore, the resulting product contains no unwanted or unforeseen compounds, which means that no further purification is necessary. The manufacture itself leads to a better yield of optically pure amino acids in higher concentrations, with shallow by-product formation.
#5 – Fermented BCAAs actually get digested
One major concern regarding both protein and BCAA supplementation has to do with their digestibility. On the one hand, this refers to the amount of time it takes for the supplement to be digested and the effects that this might have on the body. Whey protein, for instance, will be digested more quickly than casein. This means that the former works best during or after extensive physical exercise, while the latter is better ingested before sessions. On the other hand, digestibility also refers to whether or not the supplement is processed by the body and, if it is, how effectively this takes place.
than other supplements. This is because fermentation itself is a process that takes place naturally as one of the first steps of digestion in the human body. Also, plant-based BCAAs are obtained using bacterial cultures that continue to be useful once they are ingested. They enhance digestive health and make it easier for the body to absorb the amino acids that make up the supplement. This explains why consumers who opt for fermented BCAAs have reported fewer side effects, including bloating, diarrhea, gas, and stomach cramps.
#6 – Fermented foods are surprisingly healthy
Fermentation has played a part in the human diet since ancient civilizations, but its benefits beyond food preservation are only now being studied. Thus far, the reported results have been surprisingly positive. For instance, it has been proposed that through fermentation, foods acquire properties that may or may not be associated with their original nutritional components. In other words, the bacteria used to catalyze fermentation change foods to be beneficial for human health.
Some investigations have revealed a link between the consumption of fermented foods and weight management. Known for enhancing gut health, yogurt, unlike milk, has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overall mortality. Fermented milk has also been studied in connection to glucose metabolism and reduced muscle soreness following intense resistance training.
Some research suggests that even mood and brain activity may be altered through regular consumption of fermented foods. Overall, this remains a nascent field of scientific investigation. Furthermore, fermented BCAAs have not been studied as extensively as other foods, such as yogurt or kimchi. However, their manufacturing principle remains the same, particularly since they are obtained using natural bacterial cultures. It is very likely that, in addition to being more easily digestible than regular BCAA, fermented amino acids carry at least some of the wider benefits of fermented foods.
Revolutionary Supplements with Potential for a Sustainable Future
Dietary supplementation is an essential component of any athlete’s training, and BCAAs make no exception. Until recently, regular, chemically extracted amino acids were a singular option, while the cost initially involved in the manufacture of fermented BCAAs deterred producers from making a significant change. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Fermented BCAAs are now only marginally more expensive than regular supplements, and this is obvious in the number of new fermented BCAA brands available on the market.
As I have argued above, there are plenty of reasons to consider making the change yourself. To begin with, there are some issues linked to regular BCAAs that can be avoided altogether. These include the fact that such supplements are derived from inferior sources, such as animal hair, skin, feathers, and the potentially hazardous chemicals involved in the extraction process. On the other hand, Fermented amino acids are plant-based, vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, but also far more sustainable in terms of the ingredients used and the amount of waste resulting from the manufacture.
Fermented BCAA supplements are considered revolutionary because, in addition to being less harmful to the environment, they eliminate the use of chemical substances foreign to the human body. In fact, they result from processes that naturally occur in the body, where healthy bacterial cultures break down nutritional components for everyday sustenance. This makes them more readily digestible and beneficial for human health in ways beyond enhanced physical performance.