Know Your Sources of Amino Acids

Trends in food production and survey research data indicate that many consumers prefer “natural” products. Additionally, over 77% of supplement-takers stated a preference for “naturally processed” products and/or products that contain no artificial ingredients. Yet it is challenging for most consumers to gain insight into how various suppliers produce the amino acids that are used in retails supplements. The following methods are used to produce amino acids by extracting the right combination of essential amino acids from various sources – some plant-based, some animal, and some purely synthetic.

These methods include:

  • Fermentation
    A method whereby microorganisms such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi and algae help break down protein in plants and animals into smaller molecules that generate the amino acids used in dietary supplements and other products. As microorganisms are natural in origin and derived from sustainable agricultural sources, this process does not rely heavily on the use of chemicals. Some brands employ biologically engineered fermentation technology, utilizing genetically modified organisms meaning that the end-product does not meet non-GMO labeling requirements. Another factor to consider is that some manufacturers use animal-sourced enzymes such as pepsin (the chief digestive enzyme in the stomach), to break down the proteins. While fermentation is energy- and water-intensive, it is also the most natural of the primary processes.
  • Chemical Hydrolysis
    This process breaks down protein molecules with heat and an acid, such as food-grade Hydrochloric Acid (HCL). The enzymatic method of hydrolysis uses both acid and animal-based proteases such as pepsin and yeast. HCL, when released into the atmosphere as a gas, can have negative impacts on the environment.
  • Chemical Synthesis
    This process produces synthetic amino acids in the laboratory by combining different carbon molecules using chemicals. This process is primarily used in pharmaceutical applications.

As the science behind the production of amino acids is complex, manufacturers use different techniques within a production category. Typically, animal-sourced amino acids are produced with chemical hydrolysis, and plant-sourced amino acids are produced by fermentation. Factors that influence decisions include the cost of raw materials, the time-intensivity of the process and how specialized the equipment requirements are. In fact, consumers will find that brands that use plant-based sources and/or fermentation for production will often be more expensive.