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Pea Protein: The New 'It' Ingredient

by Jeanine Barone

Maybe Hans Christian Andersen was onto something in 1835 when he put a lowly pea at the center of his fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea” (or “Once Upon a Mattress,” as you may know the musical stage adaptation from 1959). The food industry seems to be obsessed with peas, or at least their protein, which, extracted from yellow peas, is being added to everything from veggie burgers, energy bars, and popcorn to milk, yogurt, and ice cream.

In some cases, pea protein is taking the place of soy protein isolates in processed foods. And it may be more appealing to consumers than adding crickets or other insects as a source of protein, another recent trend.

The number of food products containing pea protein has grown by about 200 percent in the last three years, and analysts estimate that the global market may exceed $104 million by 2026. Roquette, a France-based company, is investing some $400 million in a construction project to build the world's largest pea protein plant in Manitoba, Canada.

Pea pluses

Peas are the seeds from pod fruit Pisum sativum, a member of the legume family. They are certainly rich in protein, with one-quarter cup of whole yellow peas (uncooked) providing 11 grams of protein (by comparison, a large egg has 6 grams of protein and a cup of milk has 8 grams). And they’re less likely to cause allergies than other high-protein foods such as milk, eggs, nuts, and soy—a fact that some food companies are using in their marketing pitches.

According to a few animal and small human studies, pea protein may be able to help reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure, improve satiety, and increase muscle.

Another upside to peas is that they are more eco-friendly to grow than animal sources of protein—requiring less water and energy resources, compared to what’s needed to raise animals, and producing lower greenhouse gas emissions, thus having less impact on climate change. Growing peas can also improve soil fertility since they bring nitrogen into the soil through their roots, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

But the environmental impact also depends on what happens to the peas after harvest, and, as a 2010 paper in Food Research International found, it takes about the same amount of energy to produce a pea-burger as it does a pork chop, calorie for calorie, because of all the processing, storing, and other factors involved.

Pea protein quality

How does pea protein compare to animal protein? Peas don’t provide “complete protein,” meaning that they are low or lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids needed for the body to synthesize protein. In contrast, dairy and soy are sources of better-quality (complete) protein. Like other legumes, peas are high in the essential amino acid lysine, but low in the amino acid methionine. Still, contrary to common belief, you don’t need to combine different plant-based protein foods in the same meal to make sure you are getting complete proteins. If you consume an adequate amount of calories from a variety of protein foods during the day, you’ll likely get all your complementary proteins and meet your protein needs.

Pea wisdom

As you can see from the nutrition content of the products in the inset below, having pea protein as an ingredient doesn’t mean a food is otherwise healthy—or even high in protein. Some are very high in sodium and added sugars, for example, and they are all highly processed foods, some containing ingredients like carrageenan, methylcellulose, titanium dioxide, and sorbitol. Always check the nutrition labels. Moreover, the foods contain just the protein extract and are missing all the other good things that peas offer, including fiber (both soluble and insoluble), manganese, folate and other B vitamins, copper, potassium, zinc, and iron, as well as phytochemicals such as saponins and catechin.

A healthier alternative to pea-protein processed foods—and one that’s cheaper and better for the environment—is to eat peas directly, either fresh (the immature green seeds, which are prepared like a vegetable) or split (green or yellow split peas are simply peeled and dried matured peas and are cooked similar to lentils). To get you started, here are eight ways to serve fresh peas, along with recipes for Vegetarian Split Pea Soup and Split Pea Salsa. You can also add pea protein powder to smoothies or on top of yogurt, for example, though most people already get enough protein in their diets and don’t need more.

Finding Your Inner Peas

Pea protein is the new trend in foods. Here are some pea-containing products now available, some marketed specifically as dairy or soy alternatives or as vegan and thus “cruelty-free.”