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Bodybuilding and BCAAs seem to go hand in hand – it’s hard to find a bodybuilder, vegan or not, who isn’t extolling the virtues of these popular protein supplements. In the midst of all this hype, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction and discern whether or not BCAAs are a supplement worth investing in.
In this article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at BCAAs – the good, the bad, the in between, and whether or not this is a supplement you should have in your cupboard. We’re also going to dive into 7 of the best vegan BCAA products out there and give you our recommendation for the number one plant-based BCAA product.
- What are BCAAs?
- What do BCAAs do?
- Do I need a BCAA supplement?
- Are there risks to BCAA supplementation?
- Benefits of BCAAs
- How much BCAAs should I take?
- When should I take my BCAAs?
- What should I look for in a BCAA supplement?
- What are the best vegan BCAAs?
- Our pick for best vegan BCAA supplement
What are BCAAs?
BCAA stands for branched chain amino acid, a group of three essential amino acids. If you can remember way back to biology class, you may know that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and that there are nine that we can’t make on our own – the so-called “essential” amino acids. (1)
There’s a ton of amino acids out there, but these nine essential ones are the only ones that our body can’t produce on its own. Meanwhile, amino acids like taurine and creatine, can be and are endogenously produced, meaning that we don’t need to get them through our diet – they are not “essential” parts of our diet.
BCAAs are a subgroup of those nine essential amino acids. Specifically, they are valine, isoleucine, and leucine, but the most important of the bunch is leucine. Why are they referred to as “branched chain”? If you look at their molecular structure, they all have what looks like a branch. Simple as that!
What do BCAAs do?
BCAAs are strongly linked to building muscle and sustaining your energy during a workout. Unlike all the other essential amino acids, BCAAs are broken down in the muscles, not in the liver. This leads researchers to believe that they may be able to help maintain your stamina throughout the course of a long workout. (2)
BCAAs are also used to create new muscle mass. Leucine in particular activates mTOR and IGF-1, both of which stimulate cell growth. This means that when you consume leucine, the body gets a signal that it should be creating new cells.
While those who take BCAAs usually use these supplements to promote muscle growth and put on more lean mass, BCAAs don’t only stimulate good growths: in fact, BCAAs seem to promote cancer growth in the human body. We’ll get into the reasons for this shortly, but first let’s take a look at a few more things.
While leucine seems to have the greatest effect on building muscle, it’s generally believed that valine and isoleucine take on a bigger role in energy regulation.
Do I need a BCAA supplement?
If you eat sufficient amounts of protein in your diet, you don’t need a BCAA supplement. Plant foods like beans, tofu, and lentils all contain BCAAs – tofu is a particularly good source of leucine, for example.
No one eating a healthy diet needs to supplement with BCAAs, but some may find it helpful if they’re pursuing large amounts of muscle gains in order to compete in bodybuilding or something similar. In these cases, BCAA supplementation may be useful, but it does come with its own set of risks.
Are there risks to BCAA supplementation?
Yes. While they may not be huge, there do exist some risks to BCAA supplementation. This is largely due to the BCAA-cancer connection. We’ve touched on this issue briefly above, but let’s dive a little deeper.
Vegan diets, on average, appear to have a 15% lower incidence of cancer than omnivores. While the exact cause of this is unclear, there is speculation that this has to do with the types of proteins that one consumes on a vegan diet compared to an omnivorous diet.
One of these differences is that vegans consume lower levels of complete proteins compared to omnivores. Specifically, vegans consume lower levels of leucine. While on the surface this sounds like a bad thing, there may actually be a benefit to this. (3)
Imagine you’re playing with legos and you want to build a car. There’s two possibilities you could encounter: either you’ll have a playset that includes car-specific pieces like wheels and windows, or you’ll have a playset that only includes the basic rectangular blocks.
You can think of the former as a complete protein scenario and the latter as an incomplete protein scenario.
When you have wheels and windows, you can build a car quickly and easily. When you only have rectangular blocks, it takes some ingenuity to figure out how to build a car – the growth process goes slower.
This is the same process that occurs in our body when presented with complete proteins vs. incomplete proteins. Complete proteins are easily recognizable by our body and lead to fast cell growth, while incomplete proteins force the body to slow down a bit and be decisive about what it’s going to grow.
While this seems like an argument for complete proteins, there’s a dark side to this. Because complete proteins are so easily used by the body, it’s also easy for the body to make a mistake and use them in the wrong way.
Even though those proteins are usually used to build muscle and repair the body in good ways, the growth stimulation they provide can also get the body “overly excited” and provoke it to grow something we don’t want: cancer.
So, is this all due to BCAAs like leucine, or is it only an issue with consuming complete proteins? The research is unclear, but it does appear that the lower levels of leucine in the vegan diet may contribute to the cancer protection that one achieves on a healthy plant-based diet.
Some prominent vegan doctors, like Dr. Greger, specifically recommend a limit on tofu intake because the beloved soy delicacy is high in leucine.
At worst, your cancer risk from consuming BCAAs should be no worse than if you were on an omnivorous diet. If you’re serious about bodybuilding, you may think of it as a trade-off, but do keep in mind that you can achieve a great physique even without protein supplements.
Some other risks to be aware of are that in some cases, diets very high in protein can trigger diseases such as IBD, so if you have a personal or family history of stomach issues or any of the three forms of IBD (Crohns, ulcerative colitis, or microscopic colitis) you may want to be careful and consult your doctor before proceeding. I
t is also worth noting that vegan protein supplements, even those from large and well-known brands, have recently come under a lot of fire for heavy metal contamination. That said, if you follow the serving size exactly, you will likely still be staying within a safe level of consumption.
Benefits of BCAAs
Now that we’ve gotten the doom and gloom out of the way, let’s look at the brighter side of BCAAs. As we’ve already mentioned, BCAAs seem to aid in regulating energy throughout a workout session. In a number of studies, athletes supplementing with BCAAs experienced lower levels of fatigue during their workouts.
Branched chain aminos also appear to be helpful at promoting muscle growth, especially those with high ratios of leucine. That said, it’s not clear that there’s a benefit to using a supplement as compared to getting them from your diet.
BCAAs may also help retain muscle even during cutting periods, which is useful for body builders.
There is also some evidence that BCAAs may help lower blood sugar levels by promoting the release of insulin, but the research is unclear. Some studies show that these supplements may have the opposite effect and actually raise blood sugar levels. If you are diabetic, do not begin supplementing with BCAAs before consulting your doctor.
One other possible benefit of BCAAs is reduced muscle soreness. According to a number of studies, it appears that those supplementing with BCAAs report lower levels of muscle soreness compared to placebo.
How much BCAAs should I take?
This will vary greatly depending on your weight, gender, and activity level, but a good rule of thumb is to consume between 10 and 20 grams of BCAAs each day. For non-athletes, you should be able to reach this by eating a normal diet.
However, if you’re an athlete, you may require more than the rest of the population, and supplementation may help you reach your recommended intake. In general, athletes will want to be closer to the 20 gram per day level and non-athletes closer to the 10 gram level.
When should I take my BCAAs?
Currently, research is unclear on whether there’s an ideal time to take BCAAs in relation to a workout. Due to this lack of research, if you decide to take BCAAs, you can experiment with taking them before, after, and potentially even during the work to see what works best for you.
What should I look for in a BCAA supplement?
The main thing to look for is a supplement that has a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine. This is the best-researched blend and leads to the best results as far as we currently know.
Otherwise, pay attention to the source of the BCAAs and make sure it’s definitely vegan. It’s best to buy supplements that are certified vegan or clearly labeled animal-product and cruelty-free, but it’s possible to find BCAAs that are “accidentally” vegan.
Some products will include extra ingredients, but in general you’ll want to stay away from these. Try to stick to a supplement that has the least amount of ingredients necessary – a good rule of thumb for most things!
Also, do your best to look into the brands you’re considering and make sure that their products are safe. There’s been a lot of issues with contaminated vegan protein supplements lately, and while it’s largely unavoidable and impossible to find out which products are contaminated, it’s worth making an effort to sort out.
What are the best vegan BCAAs?
Now that we know a little bit about BCAAs, let’s check out 7 of the best vegan BCAA supplements available.
Nutrology BCAA Natural Lemonade
This supplement from Nutrology provides 5,000 mg of BCAAs at a 2:1:1 ratio (2,500 mg:1,250 mg:1,250 mg), making for a hearty serving of amino acids. It also includes 500 mg of Vitamin C.
All the ingredients are sourced from plants, not animals, so you don’t have to worry about any animal products being included in here.
Nutrology states that all their products are tested by third-parties and show low levels of heavy metals, but they don’t seem to publish their results online, so we have to take their word for it. This product is also free of artificial flavors, colors, and sweeteners, which is a plus.
The taste is pretty good considering it’s a protein shake. You’re never going to find haute cuisine in a pre-workout drink, but this definitely ain’t bad.
- Hearty serving of BCAAs
- Good taste
- Claimed to be third-party tested for heavy metals
- Lab test results don’t seem to be easily accessible online
Inspired Nutraceuticals BCAA
Inspired Nutraceuticals throws an electrolyte blend into the mix, providing 300 mg of a calcium and magnesium blend along with 5,000 mg of BCAAs at a 2:1:1 ratio. They’ve also added astragalus membranaceous and ginseng, seemingly to fight against inflammation. The latter ingredient may also have some anti-cancer effects, which may be helpful in countering the possible cancer-promoting powers of BCAAs. The brand doesn’t seem to be very transparent about its lab testing, and it’s not clear that they do any at all. This is somewhat concerning, but it’s something you’ll run into with most brands, so it’s not fair to single them out. This powder has a pretty nice taste, so no problems there. The main issue we found with this product is that they include too many ingredients – the ginseng and unpronounceable other plant seemed unnecessary. We’d never heard of astragalus mem-something-or-other before and we’re fairly confident most people haven’t either. Not a great feeling consuming something that you don’t recognize or know the purpose of!
Not clear if they test their products for contaminants Too many ingredients
Vega Sport Recovery Tropical
Vega is a major player in the plant-based protein world, if not the major player. They got a lot of deserved criticism after their protein products tested positive for heavy metals like lead, but they say that they are within safe limits.
Vega doesn’t publish their lab results online, but considering how large the company is and how much they have at stake, you can feel fairly safe that they’re doing whatever they can to reduce contamination.
However, at the end of the day, there’s still lead in their products, and that’s concerning.
This product, in particular, isn’t specifically designed as a BCAA supplement, but it does contain BCAAs since it includes pea protein and brown rice protein. We were a little overwhelmed by the huge amount of ingredients they included ranging from turmeric to glucosamine to B vitamins and astragalus membr… I give up.
All in all, we would have preferred more of a focused product. It’s hard to know how this huge cocktail of supplements is going to affect you. Perhaps some will work well for you, and some won’t, but you’ll never know which were causing which effects.
- Big name brand
- Too many ingredients and supplements mixed in
Justice Nutrition Reform
This supplement from Justice Nutrition contains not only BCAAs, but also other essential amino acids like L-Tryptophan and L-Methionine.
The dose of BCAAs is generous: 6,000 mg at a 2:1:1 ratio, which is 1,000 mg more than most other brands we’ve seen. This is a lot, especially considering you’ll be getting protein from your diet as well.
Just like most brands, heavy metal testing is questionable here. Unlike the Vega post-workout powder, the extra ingredients Justice Nutrition added are pretty familiar and benign, like MCT and Vitamin C. While we tend to prefer powders that keep it simple, we didn’t mind the inclusion of these.
The flavor is pretty tasty and all in all this is a good product.
- Good flavor
- Includes other essential amino acids
- Questionable heavy metal testing
Smart138 100% Pure Pea Protein
Just like Vega’s, this offering from Smart138 isn’t specifically a BCAA supplement, but rather a protein supplement that contains BCAAs by virtue of it being a complete protein.
The downside to this is that while you will still be getting BCAAs, they’re not guaranteed to be in the optimal 2:1:1 ratio, although they do seem to come fairly close (the label says 2,752 mg:1,617 mg:1,729 mg, which is somewhat near to 3,000 mg:1,500 mg: 1,500 mg).
While it’s not easy to find Smart138’s lab results, they do say that their ingredients are sourced from Canada and the powder is made in the US, so that’s reassuring at least.
This supplement comes in three flavors: unflavored, chocolate, and vanilla. The unflavored powder is designed to be mixed with flavored beverages, so that added flexibility may be appealing to some, but inconvenient to others that are looking for a ready-to-go solution.
- Good selection of flavors
- Ingredients sourced from Canada, made in the USA
- Lacking lab results
- BCAAs not at a 2:1:1 ratio
EarthNutri Plant Based Post Workout Recovery Supplement
Once again, EarthNutri suffers from the same problem many of these post-workout supplements run into: an overload of ingredients.
That said, we did find the blend of whole food concentrates to be intriguing but were not thrilled that it included green tea extract, which can cause kidney and liver problems in rare cases. It’s a perfect example of how one misplaced ingredient can spoil the whole thing.
That said, claiming that the extra ingredients spoil this supplement may be going a bit far. If you’ve thoroughly researched how each of these added ingredients may affect you, this could be fantastic.
We’re just not a fan of how these companies often seemingly overload you with ingredients as a means of making you think more is better – it’s not. This could be a great supplement, but it’s hard to recommend to anyone as the huge spectrum of ingredients will affect many people in a large variety of different ways.
EarthNutri breaks the trend of opaque lab results – they actually post all their results on their site! Unfortunately, the results are extremely hard to interpret for the average person and we couldn’t make much sense of them.
We’d imagine, though, that they wouldn’t make them so publicly available if they were bad, so we’re fairly confident this product is safe.
- Lab results are available online
- Too many ingredients
True Nutrition Vegan Lean Formula
This product from True Nutrition goes in the opposite direction from what we’ve seen so far: this supplement is as simple as can be!
The only issue is that they didn’t isolate the BCAAs, instead mixing brown rice protein and pea protein together. In most cases this should be fine, but be aware there’s no way to know if you’re getting a 2:1:1 ratio of the BCAAs.
You can get this supplement in three different flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and unflavored. We liked the luxury of choice.
Thankfully, True Nutrition does a fair amount of lab testing and thoroughly vets all their products with third-party laboratories. They don’t appear to post all the results online, so we can’t know for sure, but a few are available and that was enough to instill a degree of confidence in us.
- The brand seems to have a pretty thorough third-party lab testing procedure in place
- Not specifically a BCAA supplement – no 2:1:1 to be found here
Our pick for best vegan BCAA supplement
Out of all the supplements we looked into, Nutrology’s takes home the gold medal. Unlike a lot of other products, this one has a small amount of active ingredients: just the three BCAAs, Vitamin C, and a little bit of sugar. We like that they kept it simple and didn’t go overboard with lots of exotic plants and herbs.
If Nutrology’s claims can be believed, they also use third-party labs to test for heavy metals, so this product should be safe. It’s also free from artificial ingredients, which is certainly a plus.
BCAA supplementation definitely carries some risks, such as a potentially higher cancer risk, but this may be a chance that you’ll be willing to take if you’re serious about bodybuilding. Whatever you decide, we wish you the best of luck. Keep pumping that iron!
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About The Author:
Phil Grossman is a lifestyle, real estate, and culture writer based out of New York.
A polyglot who speaks French, German, Spanish, a bit of Japanese, and a little Norwegian, Phil likes to put his love for language to good use both through traveling and writing in his second language: music. An experienced composer, Phil teaches and writes both electronic music and music for media.
Phil has been interviewed on the TODAY Show and featured on CBS 2 News, Anderson Cooper 360, and in the Journal News for his work as an education activist. Passionate about many different societal and institutional issues, Phil has shifted his current focus towards veganism and environmentalism.
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- Medline Plus Staff | Amino Acids | https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002222.htm
- Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD | 5 Proven Benefits of BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids) | https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-bcaa
- Neha Pathak, MD | Branched-Chain Amino Acids | https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/branched-chain-amino-acids-uses-risks