Amino acids are the basic building blocks of protein chains and are found on some level in the body of every living organism on earth.
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acid and describes a group of three of the twenty standard amino acids in humans, which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
These three amino acids account for a large fraction of muscle protein, but the jury is out as to whether BCAA’s or complete amino acid supplements are best for weight training and recovery.
Amino Acids vs BCAA
The main difference between Amino Acids and BCAA is that Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein in the human body which is divided into essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. BCAA implies to threes of the essential amino acids, i.e., leucine, isoleucine and valine, and they are different from other essential amino acids in terms of their structure.
Although amino acids and BCAA’s are structured similarly as they both contain amine and carboxyl functional groups, the difference between the two is the multiple carbon atoms that attach in a chain to the side of the molecule.
Comparison Table Between Amino Acids and BCAA (in Tabular Form)
|Parameter of Comparison||Amino Acids||BCAAs|
|Structure||Carboxylic acids with an amino group||Amino acid with three or more carbon atoms attached to one alpha-carbon|
|Number||500 in total. 20 standard and 9 essential for humans||3. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine.|
|Source||Synthesized in body, or from food sources||Must be from supplements or food.|
|Location||Metabolized in liver||Metabolized in muscles|
|Function||Many and varied functions||Muscle growth/recovery, glucose regulation, pain suppression|
What are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are essentially the building blocks for different proteins that are used for a massive amount of different functions in living organisms, as well as dietary supplements for humans and animals.
The easiest way to imagine how they work is to pretend that the amino acids are letters of the alphabet, and the proteins are all the words you can make with them.
In English, you can make a huge amount of words with only twenty-six letters, just as with the twenty standard amino acids our bodies can create upwards of ten thousand different proteins.
All amino acids will have groups of amine and carboxyl atoms in the chemical makeup, and there are approximately five hundred known amino acids today. To make up a protein required by our bodies, amino acids arrange themselves in a large string, and the order of which they are sequenced will determine the function of that protein.
Of the twenty standard amino acids, nine are what are known as essential, which means that we must ingest them into our bodies, whereas the other eleven can be synthesized.
These numbers can vary a little by age, as nutrition requirements are lesser in older humans and higher in children, and animals all have different essential amino acids as well.
Amino acids are used in a huge amount of bodily processes such as vasodilation, hormone secretion, collagen production, brain activities, and vitamin production.
Outside of the human body, amino acids are used in the food industry to add flavor to different prepared meals and are also added to animal feed to make up for a lack of nutrition.
What is BCAA?
There are only three BCAAs that are essential for humans, and they are leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and their “branch-chain” is of course what sets them apart from the other amino acids.
What that means is that an alpha carbon atom branches off the side of the molecule, and has a minimum of three other carbon molecules attached and surrounding it.
The three BCAAs make up forty percent of the required dietary amino acid intake for humans, and it is well documented that they play a huge role in protein synthesis and turnover, as well as the metabolization of glucose.
For this reason, BCAAs have become the subject of a lot of speculation and research done by sports scientists to see if athletic performance/recovery can be improved by supplements.
The BCAAs activate enzymes that encourage muscle growth, and repair damage was done by exercising, however many studies have shown that taking BCAA supplements is not as effective at building mass as whey protein.
They are also thought to help with workout recovery given they lower the body’s level of creatine and lactate after physical exertion, which are chemicals involved in muscle damage.
They also encourage muscle growth (although less than taking all amino acid supplements), and recovery, and have been shown to improve function and symptoms in people with liver disease.
Main Differences Between Amino Acids and BCAA
- Amino acids have both a group of amine and carboxyl atoms in their chemical makeup, whereas BCAAs also have a carbon atom chain that “branches” off to the side.
- There are approximately five hundred amino acids known to humanity, twenty of which are considered “standard”, of which nine are considered essential, of which three are our BCAAs.
- Amino acids, in general, can be synthesized in the body, usually by our livers, whereas the BCAA’s are essential amino acids and must be ingested in food or supplements.
- The majority of the standard amino acids are metabolized by the liver in humans, however, the muscles are the point of action for the BCAAs, which are therefore metabolized there.
- The BCAAs have a lot to do with muscle growth and recovery, whereas amino acids, in general, have a huge and varied range of functions in the human body.
The chemical composition of amino acids and BCAAs are very similar, the major difference being that an alpha carbon atom of the BCAAs branches off to the side, surrounded by at least three others.
When comparing their respective functions in the body, the BCAAs are very specifically targeted towards muscle performance and recovery, whereas the other amino acids are more general.
There has been a lot of research done around BCAA supplementation for workouts, however, at this stage, there is no good evidence for efficacy over a supplement that contains all twenty essential amino acids.