Amino Acids, Peptides, and Proteins: Is There a Difference?

Written by Krista Bugden
Medically Reviewed by Felicia Newell, RD

February 6, 2024

Peptides, amino acids, and proteins…they’re all one and the same, right?

Not exactly…

“Amino acids, peptides, and proteins are all interconnected,” says Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the National Coalition on Healthcare. In short, it’s their size that makes all the difference.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each one…

Peptide vs. Protein vs. Amino Acids: What’s the Difference?

If you’re looking for the difference between amino acids, peptides, and proteins, the short answer is size.

“Amino acids are the fundamental units of proteins and peptides, acting as their essential building components. Proteins and peptides both consist of amino acid chains linked through peptide or amide bonds,“ explains Costa.“Amino acids are the smallest unit, peptides are the intermediate form, and proteins are the most complex.”

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In other words…

  • Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and peptides. The human body requires 20 different types of amino acids to properly produce proteins, such as collagen in our skin or keratin in our hair (1).
  • Peptides are chains of 2-50 amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. In recent years, peptides have gained particular interest when it comes to their therapeutic and anti-aging capabilities (2).
  • Proteins are larger molecules consisting of peptides and 50 or more amino acids. These molecules provide various functions in the body, serving as enzymes, hormones, and building blocks for tissue (3).

Native Note: Peptides can be further broken down into two groups: oligopeptides, which have fewer amino acids (2-20), and polypeptides, which have several amino acids (50 or more). For this reason, some researchers refer to oligopeptides as peptides and polypeptides as proteins (4).

To really drive this point home, let’s use a food-related analogy to clarify the difference between amino acids, peptides, and protein (because who doesn’t love a good food analogy?)…

  • Amino Acids (Ingredients): Imagine amino acids as individual ingredients in a recipe. Each amino acid is like a specific ingredient in your kitchen (like butter, eggs, and spices). These ingredients are essential for creating a variety of dishes.
  • Peptides (Recipe Steps): Peptides can be compared to the steps or instructions in a recipe. When you follow a recipe, you combine specific ingredients in a particular order and quantity. Similarly, peptides are formed when amino acids come together in a specific sequence, following the "instructions" encoded in the genetic information.
  • Proteins (Finished Dish): Proteins, in this analogy, are the completed dishes you create by following the recipe. Just as a recipe combines ingredients to form a specific dish, proteins are large molecules created by the precise arrangement of amino acids. The final dish (protein) serves a specific purpose, whether it's providing structural support, facilitating chemical reactions (enzymes), or playing a role in the immune system.

Phew, we did it. Now, how exactly can you obtain amino acids, peptides, and proteins? Let’s take a look…

How Can I Make Sure I’m Getting Enough Amino Acids, Peptides, & Protein?

Amino acids, peptides, and proteins are best obtained through a whole-food diet, but supplementation may be necessary for some people. Here are a few things to know…

First off, amino acids and peptides are present in all protein-containing foods. This means your grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs, and almonds all contain amino acids linked together by peptide bonds.

However, the extent of peptides depends on how much the protein is broken down. For instance, most collagen supplements have already been broken down into smaller peptides, hence why they’re often called “collagen peptides.” This makes them much more absorbable by the body.

The second thing to know is that there are 20 standard amino acids that serve as the building blocks of protein. These amino acids fall into two separate categories: non-essential amino acids and essential amino acids (5).

Here’s a side-by-side list of non-essential and essential amino acids:

11 Non-Essential Amino Acids: Your body can make these on its own (without the need for food or supplements)!
9 Essential Amino Acids: Your body cannot make these on its own, so you’ll need to get them from food &/or supplements.
Alanine
Phenylalanine
Arginine
Valine
Asparagine
Tryptophan
Aspartic Acid
Threonine
Cysteine
Isoleucine
Glutamic Acid
Methionine
Glutamine
Histidine
Glycine
Leucine
Proline
Lysine
Serine
Tyrosine

A Note on Non-Essential Amino Acids: Although the body naturally produces these on its own, it’s still important to include a variety of foods in your diet that provide these amino acids. This helps repair tissues in the body while ensuring that you’re getting a balanced intake of amino acids. It also helps maintain important physiological processes (like the creation of hormones and neurotransmitters).

So, Which Foods Contain Amino Acids?

It all starts with protein. When you eat protein, a whole internal process unfolds…

Put simply, here’s how it goes: You eat protein → Your digestive system breaks it down into peptides → The peptides get broken down into individual amino acids.

That said, protein-rich foods that then get broken down into peptides and essential and non-essential amino acids include: grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken, turkey, pork, and lamb, pasture-raised eggs, wild-caught fish (salmon, tuna, cod), seeds (chia, hemp, pumpkin), and certain nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews).

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What Category Does My Collagen Powder Fall In—Amino Acids, Peptides, or Protein?

Collagen is best described as a type of protein. It consists of three polypeptide chains, which are long sequences of amino acids.

However, collagen supplements typically contain hydrolyzed collagen, which means the protein has already been broken down into smaller peptides. These are believed to be more easily absorbed and used by the body.

All essential and non-essential amino acids—with the exception of tryptophan—can be obtained through a grass-fed collagen supplement. Here’s a peek into what the dosage of amino acids looks like per scoop of NativePath Grass-Fed Collagen Powder:

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A hand pouring a scoop of NativePath Original Collagen Peptides from the container into a coffee mug with a French Press in the background.

Stronger Inside, Radiant Outside

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, it’s essential for the health of your bones, joints, skin, hair, nails, digestion, and more.

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Krista Bugden
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Krista Bugden

Krista Bugden is a freelance writer with a BS in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. She spent 5 years working as a kinesiologist, giving her the first-hand experience she needed to write well-researched, scientific, and informative blogs.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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