Whey protein powder is the most popular protein supplement on the market, particularly among weightlifters who want to build and maintain muscle. But is it the very best option? Research suggests there is a better way to meet your protein demands, stimulate muscle growth, and improve muscle health—taking free amino acids! Let’s settle the debate once and for all. Whey protein vs. amino acids...which is the winner?
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey is one of the two proteins that make up milk (casein protein is the other), and it’s a byproduct of the cheese-making process. Milk is heated to eliminate harmful bacteria, and the heat splits the milk into curds and whey, Little Miss Muffet’s favorite. The whey is then filtered and dried and turned into a protein powder with all nine essential amino acids:
These essential amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They are responsible for whey protein’s many benefits, like promoting muscle building, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and heart health.
Unlike nonessential amino acids which can be produced in the body, essential amino acids can only be acquired through diet or supplementation, and they are absolutely vital to the body’s proper functioning.
What Are Free Amino Acids?
Whey protein is an intact protein, as are dietary proteins like eggs and meat. In order to be used by the body, these complete proteins must first be broken down into single amino acids. Due to the presence of carbohydrates and fats, it take longer to free the amino acids.
Free amino acids are single amino acids that require no digestion. They get to work faster healing and repairing tissue, generating hormones and enzymes, and boosting performance and function.
Whey Protein vs. Amino Acids: Which Is More Effective?
If you are looking to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, then an essential amino acid supplement made up of free-form aminos is the most effective option. Studies show that muscle protein synthesis is 2 times more responsive to free amino acids than to whey protein isolate (1).
It comes down to the speed at which these molecules get to work. Amino acid levels in the blood rise faster when free aminos are consumed, and they reach higher peak concentrations.
Another advantage of a free amino acid supplement is that it can be formulated according to a precise combination and dose of essential amino acids for specific health needs. For example, aging muscle is less responsive to the anabolic (muscle-building) signals of protein. By adding a higher proportion of the branched-chain amino acid leucine, you can break through the resistance and stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older adults.
But there are advantages to whey protein as well. The amino acids in whole protein are digested much slower and are, therefore, maintained for a longer time. What if scientists combined the two?
Researchers did just that, and published their findings in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (1). They pitted the effects of one or two servings (6.3 grams and 12.6 grams) of free-form essential amino acids and whey protein against Gatorade Recovery, a popular whey protein powder.
All three beverages raised essential amino acid levels in the body, but the higher dose essential amino acid plus whey formula increased them the most. The essential amino acid plus whey also optimized the balance between whole-body protein synthesis and breakdown. Overall, the high- and low-dose essential amino acid supplements were 6 and 3 times more effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis and muscle recovery than Gatorade Recover, respectively.
Researchers concluded that “a composition of a balanced EAA formulation combined with whey protein is highly anabolic as compared to a whey protein-based recovery product, and that the response is dose-dependent.”
What About BCAA Supplements?
No discussion on protein powder would be complete without mention of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): isoleucine, leucine, and valine.
The three BCAAs are actually essential amino acids, but they’re different in that they have a unique side chain of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. They are popular among the bodybuilding crowd due to their purported muscle gain and muscle repair effects. Leucine is the star player due to its ability to initiate protein synthesis.
There’s a big problem with BCAA supplementation, however. Essential amino acids need to be balanced in the body in precise proportions. Consuming too much of one...or three in the case of the BCAAs...throws off the balance of the other amino acids, thereby disrupting the balance of the body. The many other functions of amino acids in the blood, including the production of neurotransmitters, blood flow regulation, immune function and improvement of plasma lipid profiles, are contingent on a balanced composition of blood amino acids. Also, the body requires all of the amino acids to achieve protein synthesis. A BCAA supplement might trigger muscle protein synthesis, but without enough of the other essential amino acids, it won't carry the process to completion.
For these reasons, it is far more effective to take a complete essential amino acid supplement than a BCAA supplement.
Getting the Best of Both Whey and Free Aminos
The better protein supplement for you depends on your fitness and health goals. Amino Co scientists, including Dr. Robert Wolfe who was one of the lead authors on the aforementioned study, have determined that combining whey protein with free essential amino acids is advantageous for healing and recovery from illness, injury, or surgery, or when the body is under intensified stress.
They developed a high-quality recovery blend called Heal made with optimal proportions of whey protein and essential amino acids. Clinical trials show that Heal is 3 times more effective at stimulating muscle growth and muscle repair than any other protein source.
This protein supplement is also unique in that it helps calm inflammation and preserve muscle mass even in states of complete inactivity such as bed rest. Studies have shown marked improvements in physical function and strength just 6 weeks after surgery.
Reaching Your Fitness Peak
If you’re looking for a supportive supplement to enhance your athletic performance, both during endurance and resistance exercise, then you’d be better served by a free amino acid supplement that includes the essential amino acids (minus tryptophan which is not necessary in a dietary supplement designed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and can contribute to feelings of fatigue during your workout).
Amino Co scientists also added citrulline, an amino acid that boosts arginine levels for better blood flow and oxygenation. That’s the beauty of free amino acid formulas—you can design them for your precise needs!
Perform has been shown in clinical trials to:
- Boost peak muscle response 4 times more than testosterone or human growth hormone (HGH)
- Optimize strength and endurance
- Improve focus, concentration, and brain function
- Quickly rebuild muscle tissue for reduced recovery times
If it’s anti-aging you're after, then a free amino acid supplement made with appropriate concentrations of essential amino acids coupled with carnitine and citrulline will help improve muscle and heart health.
Amino Co’s muscle and heart patented blend helps prevent age-related declines in lean muscle mass and strength, improves lipid profiles by lowering LDL and triglyceride levels, and supports cardiovascular health.
Each of these options is a highly effective way to boost your protein intake. And it’s as simple as adding a scoop to 8 ounces of water or whipping up a tasty protein shake pre-workout, post-workout, and/or between meals. For inspiration, check out these 5 easy-to-make protein powder recipes. Let us know your favorite in the comments below and whether you’re a whey lover or are ready to take your health to even higher heights with free aminos!