Amino spiking is when companies add cheap and/or low-quality amino acids to their protein and BCAA supplements in order to be able to claim a markedly higher protein content. A way to avoid such an experience is to check the ingredients list.
The Basics of Protein
Before discussing what amino spiking is, the basics of protein and amino acids should be explained. In the context of health and fitness, protein is specifically important as it provides material for the muscles to repair and grow.
Structurally, protein is a complex macromolecule composed of amino acids – these are singular units that make up proteins. There are 20 amino acids and they are categorized as either non-essential or essential amino acids.
Non-essential amino acids are those that the body can naturally produce. These include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
Essential amino acids are not produced in the body. These are amino acids that have to be acquired through diet. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Food and supplements that contain protein (e.g., meat, dairy, fish, legumes, etc.) are broken down into these amino acid building blocks. These are then used by the body to make up whatever protein the body needs. For muscle, these amino acids are used to synthesize protein in the skeletal muscles.
What is Amino Spiking?
Amino spiking is the addition of cheap amino acids in supplements so that companies can market their supplements with a higher protein content.
For building muscle, there are three amino acids that are especially important; These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. While all amino acids are needed to create proteins, these three are more associated in proteins found in skeletal muscles. Studies have shown that these amino acids make up ~35% of all amino acids found in muscle proteins.
Leucine is associated with muscle growth because leucine acts as an activator of the muscle protein synthesis pathway. On the other hand, isoleucine and valine have been found to play a role in energy utilization. These amino acids encourage the muscles to utilize glucose found in the blood before using up their own glycogen stores. This extends the energy available for muscles. This is also why BCAA supplements often come in a 2:1:1 ratio (leucine : isoleucine : valine); An “amino spiked” product uses “filler” amino acids like glycine, arginine, glutamine, and creatine.
Amino spiking does not mean that the products don’t contain the three important amino acids. However, they may be advertised to be included but actually only in very limited amounts. For example, the base amount of leucine in whey protein is 11% (or around 2.75 grams per 25 grams of protein). This means that if the advertised amount of leucine is only 2.75 grams per 25 grams protein, then this supplement is more or less amino spiked.
Another way to spot an amino spiked product is to look at the ingredients list and checking for the use of “gimmicky/marketing” terms. Amino spiked products tend to use vague terminology such as “amino matrix,” “proprietary blend,” or “protein blend.”
These are terms that suggest protein and amino acids in the ingredients without specifying the kinds of amino acids included. Quality supplements typically list the amino acid profile and their respective amounts on the ingredient list.
Amino Spiking vs Fortifying with Amino Acids
There are some products marketed as “fortified with amino acids.” This is not an example of amino spiking. In this case, the manufacturers are just adding more amino acids in order to make the product more nutritionally complete.
Fortifying with amino acids is a nice touch from companies because essentially, all protein sources (e.g., whey, casein, etc.) have varying amounts of different amino acids. Fortifying these with additional amino acids helps to round them out.