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Supplements: Why Cheap Products are Costly

By Tanner | In Training | on June 28, 2012

Right now you can clearly discern two groups of members at CFW, those taking branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and those who are not.  I wish I could say you can tell who takes them by the way they look or the loads and times on the board, but that isn’t neccessarily true.  While everyone of our top performers take BCAAs, our smartest newcomers are too.  But the easiest, and most obvious way to tell which person is taking BCAAs, is that they have the container of them with them on the gym floor.  Not sure what I mean?  All those Extend, Modern BCAA, and Poliquin bottles you see everyone with… those are BCAAs. Branched chained amino acids are essential amino acids.  Your body cannot make them and they must be gained from the diet.  The benefits of BCAAs are well documented and have been proven in both strength and endurance sports for well over twenty years.  They provide increases in growth hormone, prevent post workout decrease in testosterone, foster an improved testosterone to cortisol ratio, reduce fatigue while training, decrease body fat, and reduce muscle wasting.  I’ll spare you the physio nerd details…  basically BCAAs help you recover better than any other sport or training supplement in short, because they are metabolized very quickly and are absorbed directly by muscle cells.

It is very well known that BCAAs aid in the strength sports.  Their benefits are less known in the endurance world.  Their fatigue reducing capabilities translate into to better performance over time.  Your body can convert BCAAs and use them for energy, making them the most overlooked supplement in endurance sports.  15-20 grams per hour will keep you going faster, longer.

I get many questions about BCAAs and which type I recommend.  With supplements (and pretty much everything else) I do a cost vs. effectiveness analysis (CEA), or “bang for my buck” analysis to aid in my decision or whether to take a certain one or not.  A CEA not only accounts for the cost of something (that would be a cost vs. benefit analysis where the cost of money is the primary consideration), it considers the effects of at least two other components in relation to costs.

With a supplement, I first define what I am actually shopping for.  For example, when shopping for EPA/DHA, I am NOT

shopping for fish oil, I am shopping for reduced systemic inflammation.  If I were shopping for fish oil I could head to the fish market, purchase a few pounds of bait fish, hold each of them over head and open wide while I squeeze all the oil from their back ends.  I would get plenty of “oil”, but not any anti-inflammatory help.  Wal-Mart / CostCo fish oils come to mind. So if I am in the market for better recovery, I have to decide which supplement is best for recovery.

You probably guessed it, but BCAAs are the easy choice.  So now that I’ve decided I need BCAAs  I need to figure, with a cost – effectiveness analysis, which BCAA product is best for me.  In direct relation to the cost, I consider quality, purity, and quantity.  It ensures I get the best bang for my buck.

Quality can mean quite a few things.  But I consider a company’s reputation for making products that measure up.  Does the company submit its products to independent lab testing for content?  Since the FDA doesn’t require it, many supplement labels amount to nothing more than lies.  I also avoid companies that place sales pitches, extraordinary claims, or misleading language in their product’s advertisement.  Quality from that perspective can be derived by results.  Another part of quality, the most often overlooked part with supplements, is the active ingredient(s).  I want the most bioavailable ingredients I can get.  Taking a supplement that never makes it into my body, but passes straight into the sewer is obviously a waste of money.  Many supplements, vitamins and minerals especially, can be found in different forms.  Some are more effective than others.  Some are not effective at all.

Take calcium for an example.  Calcium carbonate (found in antacids) the most sold form of calcium supplements.  The

problem is, calcium carbonate isn’t absorbed by the gut very well, if at all.  If you are simply shopping for calcium, you did just fine. However, since most people who purchase calcium are actually shopping for bone health, calcium carbonate is a horrible choice.  It does nothing to improve deterioration of bone in those with Osteoporosis or Osteopenia.  There are forms of calcium that actually work. It is too bad the supplement manufacturers can market a cheap product  to the elderly population that is provennot to improve bone health (what does the FDA do again?).

Luckily, BCAAs are fairly cut and dry.  An ingredient label on a BCAA product should have only three things… the three branched chain aminos.  They are valine, leucine, and isoleucine.  Purity and quality are very closely linked, yet purity deserves its own mention.  The amounts of preservatives, chemicals, colors, and all the other “artificial” things we subject ourselves to each day is astounding.  A supplement should increase your health and wellness, not contribute to your demise.  Any supplement with added artificial flavors and/or sweeteners gets axed from the selection immediately.  So all those flavored BCAA mixes do not even make it through the first screening.

Stalin coined the saying “Quantity has its own quality”.  It’s true with many things, but not necessarily with supplements.  First you need to know what an minimum effective dose is.  Better yet, I want to know my optimum dose.  With BCAAs, 20 grams is the minimum effective dose.  If you aren’t able to get that on board, don’t bother.  You can figure your optimum dose by multiplying your bodyweight by .25.  That’s how many grams you need each day.  Taken pre, during, and post workout, this is the dose that will yield the best results. Now you know how much you need to take.  Next you need to know how many servings of your product you will need to take to get that dose.  For the sake of easy math, I’ll use the 20 gram min effective dose and three of the popular BCAAs products used by CFW and WSC members.  I’ll go ahead and disclose one is the Poliquin brand that we sell.  It is also the one I take and have been for a few years now.

  1. BCAA Excellence –  20 grams = 29 caps /500 caps per bottle – 17 servings per $52 bottle $3 per serving
  2. Extend –  20 grams = 3 scoops (39 grams by weight) – 10 servings per $35 – $41 container – $4.10 per serving.
  3. USP Labs Modern BCAAs – 20 grams = 4 scoops (24 grams by weight) – 17  servings per $38- 45 container – $2.65 per serving

If the price were the only consideration (cost – benefit analysis), the Modern wins out and the Extend is undoubtedly the big loser.  But there are couple of things left to consider.  The Extend and the Modern contain artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors.  The Modern isn’t too bad at 10 grams of BCAAs to 12 grams of weight.  The Extend is horrible.  Only 7 grams of the 13 gram scoop is BCAAs.  So almost half of what you’re putting into your body is filler and artificials.

The Poliquin brand has no artificial anything.  It does have one addition to the three BCAAs, the amino acid L-Lysine. Lysine has been shown to increase the effectiveness of branched chains by eliciting a greater growth hormone response during exercise.  As of now, there are no other products combining lysine with BCAAs (that I know of).  The lysine definitely tips the scale.

Hopefully this will help you shop for and purchase supplements that fulfill their intended purpose.  It’s easy to get pulled in by a product’s hype.  In the CrossFit community, Progenex comes to mind.

There are many BCAA products, both capsule and powder, that are just as cost effective as the Poliquin.  You just have to shop for them…  and now you know how to.  More importantly, you know how to avoid the less effective products.
-t.

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