The Best BCAA Supplements
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs for short) have become a widely available and a highly utilized dietary supplement.
Even if you've never taken a BCAA supplement you've seen them at the gym - those incredibly bright coloured drinks in shakers usually being consumed by guys or gals who look extremely fit.
As sports science continues to grow, we continue to unlock the secrets to massive gains in the gym. Research has shown that BCAA supplements can help do exactly that, unlock your full potential.
It's no wonder that increasing the amount of essential amino acids in the body has become such a big business.
Most essential amino acids cannot be made naturally by the body itself, so many supplement companies have focused their efforts on developing products that can help provide the body the nutrients it needs.
Some research has shown that there is a real need for essential nutrients to be supplemented through man-made products, because it can be a struggle to provide the body with all the nutrients it needs through food alone.
This is particularly true if you're pushing your body in the gym or on the field. In this day and age life is fast paced, meals are missed and some would argue the food we are eating doesn't provide as many nutrients as it once did.
Supplementation has become a cornerstone in achieving peak performance.
In this article we will:
Help readers understand BCAA’s
Highlight the benefits are behind taking BCAA supplements
Discuss some of the better BCAA supplements currently on the market
What Are Branched-Chain Amino Acids?
There are 20 proteinogenic acids that the human body can get from nutritional foods, with 9 of them being essential amino acids. These are the amino acids that the body cannot make itself, so it needs to get them from food or supplements.
Three of these essential amino acids (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine) are branched-chain amino acids. These are known as the fundamental building blocks of proteins and are critical to building muscle and recovering after a workout.
What makes BCAA's unique is an aliphatic side-chain that joins it together, or in other words; they are the amino acids that have a central carbon atom that binds three or more carbon atoms together.
The body requires the nine essential amino acids, including the three BCAA's - Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine in order to recover after prolonged exercise.
These BCAA’s account for 35% of the essential amino acids within muscle protein and are 40% of the preformed amino acids required by all mammals to live.
Basically, you must get these into your body through natural or man-made products so that all your hard work in the gym has been worth it.
When is the Optimal Time to Take BCAA Supplements
Research has shown it is best to take BCAA supplements before exercise (approximately 30 minutes) and then again after exercise.
This of course depends on whether you use powdered or capsule versions and it varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. You should always follow both the manufactures guideline and consult with a doctor before taking any supplements.
Capsules will take longer for the body to digest, so the time difference needs to be considered. You should also read the manufacturers labelling to see if it is recommended to take the product with or without food (but most companies typically suggest taking BCAA supplements with food).
Taking BCAA at optimal time will help aid with recovery time, muscle soreness, lower the rate of muscle breakdown, and aid in lowering fatigue levels during and after exercise.
BCAA Supplement Reviews:
Muscle Pharm BCAA Supplements
Price: $20 for 170g (30 servings)
Price: $16 for 240 CAPSULES (30 servings)
This supplement’s capsule version uses a formula of 3g of L-leucine, 1g of L-isoleucine and 2g of L-valine per serving. It’s worth noting 8 pills is considered one serving.
If you use the powdered version, you can get it in Blue Raspberry, Watermellon or unflavoured flavours, but be aware that it does contain Soy.
The unflavoured powder mixes well in other products such as Whey Powder. If you are going to mix it, it is wise to check the BCAA content already in the other product. There are cheaper BCAA products on the market that have similar levels of BCAAs.
Overall, the taste has been well received and it mixes extremely well.
Price: $14.99 for 250g (50 servings)
MyProtien BCAA Consumer Rating
*This isn't a great option for North American's as it's not readily available.
This product has a 95% BCAA content and only requires 1 teaspoon (5000mg) per serving. There is a ratio of 3:2:1 and contains 43 nutrients.
Like most BCAA powders, MyProtein BCAA consistently gets poor reviews for the flavour.
If you’re going to purchase this brand, be prepared to mask the flavour with juice or use the unflavoured version and mix it with another supplement you are taking to counteract the bad taste.
It is a good option to try, as it mixes well, is affordable and is clearly one of the better products when it comes to BCAA content and serving size (1kg will give you 200 servings - £0.14 per serving).
$17 for 250g (166 servings)
Bulk Supplements BCAA Powder Consumer Reviews
This product has a recorded 95.2% BCAA content and the serving size is only 1500mg, which is 166 servings from a 250g bag which will last 55 days.
It’s suggested that you take 3 servings per day. Many customers claim they take up to 5g of the powder to increase the BCAA levels for noticeable results (*consult a doctor if you are upping the recommended dosage).
The product mixes well with water, juice or in other supplement products, but even the unflavoured version can have a slight bitter aftertaste.
It is free from dairy, soy, gluten, corn, sugars and additives.
It can also be bought in bulk - 1kg and 5kg packages.
$35 for 340g (65 servings)
NOW Supplements Consumer Reviews
The serving size is 2 full teaspoons (5200mg) to get the recommended dose (3:1:2) and is less concentrated than other BCAA’s on the market (93.2%).
The powdered version can be bought in an unflavoured version, meaning it can be added to other drinks/products without risking it tasting bad e.g. juice or pre-workout being the more favoured option.
The biggest issue with NOW's BCAA powder is it doesn't mix terribly well. It should be noted that all BCAA powders have this issue.
$16 for 90 capsules (30 servings)
Shear Strength Consumer Ratings
Sheer Strength sells one of the most concentrated BCAA supplements on the market (97%) which is extremely pure.
3 Capsules is the recommended serving size providing 3000mg L-Leucine, 1500mg L -L-Isoleucine and 1500g of L-Valine.
Although Sheer Strength isn't a big brand name, it has received high praise from the weight lifting community.
$20 for 435g (30 servings)
BSN AMINOx Consumer Reviews
BSN AMINOx has 10g amino acids per serving, with added vitamin D.
Unlike other BCAA products, which typically suggest you should use their product before and after a workout, BSN suggest AMINOx is specifically used as post-workout recovery supplement.
It contains no caffeine, sugar or stimulants, which furthers their claim to it being a post-workout supplement.
One of the main benefits to using this product is the good range in the packaging size; 6 x “packets”, a 30 serving tub or a 70 serving tub. There is also a huge range of flavours; Blue Raspberry, Grape, Strawberry Dragonfruit, Tropical Pineapple, Fruit Punch, Strawberry Orange, Green Apple, Watermelon or unflavoured,
If you're looking for a flavoured BCAA supplement the grape flavour tastes pretty good.
£14.99 for 250g (50 servings)
iBCAA Consumer Reviews
The Protein Works have trademarked their own formula of BCAA’s used in their supplements, naming it the TPW Instantised Branch Chain Amino Acids or “iBCAA”.
This really makes zero difference in how BCAAs work within the body and is just a way of marketing their products differently to others.
TWP’s standalone product, aptly named iBCAA, contains 1000mg of BCAAs per serving at a typical ratio of 2:1:1.
The flavours don’t taste great, but they typically mix well. The main issue with TPW’s BCAA products is that they offer so many BCAA supplements it becomes extremely confusing.
A few of these products include: iBCAA ultra 5:1:1, BCAA Complex (1000mg tablets) and the BCAA Advanced 4:1:2, with each product claiming different benefits.
They also make claims that are common among other BCAA products e.g. how the capsules in the “Protected BCAA are protected by a revolutionary delayed release capsule”, implying that these are different to other capsules on the market as they take longer to digest and therefore get absorbed differently.
This is misleading, as capsules typically take longer to digest than powder and the digestive rate can vary from person to person.
$21.99 for 366g (30 servings)
SciVation Xtend BCAA Consumer Reviews
SciVation Xtend has 7g of BCAAs (compared to many brands that only have 5g), plus it has L-Glutamine and Citrulline Malate.
They base their marketing on having 0 sugar, 0 carbs and 0 calories, but this is the same for almost every other BCAA supplement on the market.
SciVaton use wording like hypercritical BCAAs and nature-designed and widely-researched 2:1:1 ratio. The 2:1:1 ratio is used by almost every company for a range of reason, including; the cost to make the product, what affect each amino acid has on the body and taste.
SciVation offer a wide range of flavours (12+), which generally have a higher consumer rating than their unflavoured version.
$29.99 for 360g (40 servings)
EVLUTION BCAA Consumer Reviews
This is a different sort of BCAA product, as it is mixture of BCAA’s in a pre-workout drink.
The formula it uses includes; caffeine, Beta-alanine, L-alanine and Taurine to help promote concentration, focus and improve energy levels.
Be mindful that this a pre-workout drink that has BCAA’s in it, as opposed to a post-workout BCAA supplement. It contains caffeine from green coffee bean and green tea, vitamin B6, B12 & C.
The product suggests different serving sizes for different requirements e.g. ‘Anytime Energy” = 1 servings (2 scoops), ‘Moderate Energy = 2 servings (4 scoops) or ‘Maximum Energy’ = 3 servings (6 scoops).
Like many other pre-workout drinks you may experience a temporary tingling feeling that will diminish over time.
ErgoGenix ErgoChain BCAA Supplement
£12.14 for 225g (30 servings)
ErgoChain BCAA Consumer Reviews
This product is one of the cheapest on the market, especially as it only requires one scoop per serving.
However, one scoop size is actually 7.5g, which matches some of the weights that other competitors use, but they make you use 2 smaller scoops to get the same amount of BCAAs per serving.
This company boasts that their product contains no added sugar or carbohydrates, but this is the same for the majority of products on the market, but the real benefits to this product is that it comes in flavours not typically seen in other products e.g. blackberry lemonade and pineapple mango.
What Are The Different Ways Of Taking BCAA’s?
There are two main ways to get the necessary BCAAs into your body through your diet; natural sources e.g. meat and eggs and supplementation e.g. powders or capsules/tablets.
It has been said that the body can absorb 8-10 grams of food per hour (livestrong.com, 2015), but the body needs time to digest and metabolize the BCAAs from the foods we eat.
The estimated Tolerable Upper Limit (TUL) for BCAA’s in someone’s daily diet is set at 500mg per kg of bodyweight, with leucine having a graded intake of 50-1250mg per kg of body weight. If you were to exceed the advised limit, it may cause Serum Ammonia, but most of the products on the market do not exceed this estimated limit e.g. Legends Body Sports Smart Recovery has one of the largest recorded amount of Leucine at 8.31g per serving, so it is perfectly safe as long as you go by the recommended serving suggestions.
With all this in mind, it is important to understand how each source of BCAAs are digested in the body, to hopefully understand what is the best way to get the BCAAs that your body needs:
Sources of BCAAs: Natural Foods
Amino acids occur naturally in certain foods e.g. meat, eggs and milk, however, the amount of absorbable BCAAs in certain forms of proteins can differ, mostly because our body absorbs proteins at different rates.
Ingesting natural sources of protein is always a better way of getting the required nutrients your body needs, but many people find it hard to afford the amount of food needed to reach the necessary amount of BCAAs to aid with muscle growth and recovery. If you can afford to eat natural and health foods, then do so as it is the best thing you can do, but if you can’t - then it is wise to look at other ways of getting the nutrients your body needs e.g. BCAA supplements.
Sources of BCAAs: Supplements
Powdered varieties of BCCA supplements have been widely available for some time and there are many companies offering a large range of flavoured of unflavoured powders to match all tastes.
Powders are a very fast way for the body to absorb the nutrients offered in the supplement, as digestion starts in the stomach and then continues through the small intestine until it is fully absorbed in the blood.
For many people, it is the simplest way of introducing BCAAs into their diet, with them being incredibly simple to use and can easily fit into a busy lifestyle e.g. you can store the unmixed powder in your gym bag until you need it and then simply add water and shake.
BCAA powders need to be diluted in either water or juice and usually need to be shaken vigorously to ensure a good mix.
Many people find the taste to be slightly bitter and the texture to be chalky.
In general, capsules are considered to be a less efficient form of supplementation due to the time it takes to break down in the stomach.
The vast majority of people’s stomachs take approximately 30 minutes to digest a capsule’s content fully, so capsule forms of BCAA supplements need a greater digestive time, but this usually does not hinder the overall absorption levels that capsules provide.
Generally, capsules require less digestive strength than tablets, as tablets can sometimes take longer to digest if the contents are compressed too tightly. The benefits of taking BCAA’s in capsule/tablet form, is that it is a flavourless method and can be consumed whilst drinking other supplements.
The main issue is that many products require you to take a large number of tablets to reach the recommended dosage (ION, 1992).
You can also get gels, sachets or find products that have BCAAs mixed in with them too e.g. pre-workouts
Whey Powder or Glutamine or BCAA Supplements?
There is a growing argument in the fitness community about what is better to take as a supplement; BCAA supplements or Whey powder.
Whey protein is a by-product formed during the manufacturing of cheese. Whey protein supplements are one of the most popular supplements on the market.
Most protein supplements on the market offer a high biological value, meaning they offer essential amino acids in a similar ratio to the needs of our body.
Although many whey products contain a high number of essential amino acids, they don’t contain the same dosage levels of BCAA's that a BCAA specific product can offer. Further more, Whey takes longer to digest than BCAA supplements.
This means the body doesn’t get the same dosage of BCAAs from a Whey protein product or digest them as fast as what a BCAA supplements offers.
Many BCAA products are seen as being far more ‘pure’ compared to the likes of Whey powders or glutamine.
However, just by saying ‘BCAA or protein’, ‘BCAA vs Whey’ or ‘BCCA vs glutamine’ isn’t enough to suggest one is better than the other, as they offer different benefits. It is difficult when the companies say that their BCAA supplement for Runners is different to another company who markets their product as the ‘Best BCAA supplement for bodybuilders’. There really isn’t any real evidence in a sport affects the amount of BCAAs needed in your body and to go as far as suggesting that a ‘BCAA supplement for men’ is different to a ‘BCAA supplement for women’ is totally unsupported. There may be a slight difference in the amount an endurance athlete needs compared to a ‘2 day a week gym goer’ looking to take BCAA supplements for weight loss, but most of the claims are just so that the company can sell more of their product compared to their competitor.
BCAA Supplement Labels
Unfortunately, not all companies are 100% truthful with what they claim. Labdoor (2016) highlighted a huge difference in what companies actually put in their products and what is put on the labels.
Labdoor’s study looked at 24 different BCAA supplement products currently on the market and showed that 23 actually measured at least 25% less isoleucine, 19.8% less leucine and 16.9% less valine compared to what was being claimed on the packaging (5 products actually had up to a 50% variance).
Should this deter you? Not really. Out of the 24 products Labdoor tested, none of them contained any added sugars or fats, 6 showed significant quantities of vitamin B6 and all of them passed purity tests, therefore, the majority of BCAA products are perfectly safe to use (as long as you follow the recommended serving guidelines).
Knowing this may put scepticism into the minds of a BCAA supplement user, making people think that taking more of the product will get faster or better results. However, it is very important to follow exactly what has been suggested on the labelling when it comes to; serving size, daily consumption limits and when/how to take the product.
Are There Any Negative Effects Or Side Effects?
It’s always wise to consult a doctor before taking sports supplementation and monitor the types of protein consumed to see different types affect your body negatively.
Some people have claimed to feel sore, nauseous and tired after taking BCAA supplements for the first time. It is well advised to take these products in small doses and over a long period of time so that your body can get used to them.
Remember that some products also contain caffeine, dextrose or maltodextrin. Some can contain soy or could be made within an area that uses dairy products. If you have any dietary issues with dairy or other contaminants, please read the labels carefully.
Be aware that some companies suggest you take their products along side food, with some even claiming you can sprinkle them onto foods (but it will change the flavour).
Likewise, if you don’t see any real benefits from taking one specific product, it might be worth trying another company’s product rather than simply upping the dosage.
BCAA’s are naturally found in our diet, so supplementing them through a sports drinks or a tablet is generally seen as being safe by many in the scientific community. The only real exception relates to medical conditions that interfere with the body’s natural ability to metabolize BCAAs properly e.g. branched-chain ketoaciduraia.
For a number of years, BCAA supplements have been clinically used as dietary supplement to aid in the recovery of burn victims, but recently they have been used to treat cases of hepatic encephalopathy.