If you’ve been curious about adding more plant-based products into your diet, you’re not alone. According to a survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation, curiosity — even more than environmental or health concerns — ranked as the No. 1 reason why many consumers consider trying plant-based alternatives, especially protein. You don’t have to identify as a vegetarian or vegan, either. 66 percent of the participants in the survey identified themselves as omnivores, eating both plants and meat or animal products.
Many plant-based protein alternatives, such as meat, use pea protein to mimic the texture of animal meat, while providing a similar nutritional profile. But pea protein may be unfamiliar to you, even if you have used protein powders or supplements in the past.
We spoke to Kaylee Jacks, a sports nutritionist at Texas Health Sports Medicine, to find out what it is, what the benefits and shortfalls are, and how something so small could possibly pack a large protein punch.
What is Pea Protein?
No matter if you’re a beginner or seasoned pro, a glance at the protein powder section of the supplement aisle can be daunting. There are several forms of protein powder but the most common forms are whey, casein, brown rice and soy protein. But pea protein has become a leader over the years due to the fact that it is rich in iron, vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, gluten-free and hypoallergenic.
“I think the importance of vegetables is being recognized,” says Jacks. “Vegetables have so many health benefits and are nutrient-dense (rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber). Popular documentaries and other media influences have made ‘plant-based diets’ attractive to consumers but allergies and the indigestibility of other proteins may be another reason why consumers are seeking alternatives.”
Pea protein is, as you may have guessed it, derived from yellow split peas that are dried then ground up into a fine flour. But it doesn’t stop there; the pea flour is then mixed with water and most of the starch and fiber content is removed before the paste is dried again and ground into a fine powder. If you’re immediately concerned about the taste, have no fear — pea protein is mild in flavor, allowing whatever it is mixed with to stand out in taste, making unflavored pea protein a suitable option for adding to a variety of meals.
What Are the Benefits?
“Pea protein is a good lean protein source and protein slows digestion which keeps you fuller longer,” Jacks says. “Pea protein is also higher in fiber which supports weight loss by keeping you fuller longer and improving gastrointestinal health. It can help anyone, but especially vegan and vegetarians, reach their protein needs and may support weight loss by preventing overeating by keeping you fuller longer.”
The benefits go on and on for pea protein. Just one-fourth of a cup of pea protein serves up:
23 grams of protein
7 grams carbohydrate
.3 grams fat
6 grams fiber
400 IU vitamin D
5 IU vitamin E
5 micrograms vitamin K
200 IU vitamin A
Peas are a great source of many nutrients including fiber, vitamin B6 and iron. They also contain about 10 grams of protein per cup, but can provide as much as 20-25 grams of protein per scoop when consumed in pea protein powder.
Jacks adds that pea protein, unlike many other plant-based proteins, is a “complete” protein similar to meat, meaning it is a source of all nine essential amino acids that are vital for maintaining a healthy, well-functioning body.
“Plant proteins are typically ‘incomplete proteins,’ meaning they do not contain all nine essential amino acids and must be combined with other proteins to obtain them,” Jacks explains. “But pea protein does contain all nine essential amino acids. Although, it is important to note some of the nine essential amino acids in pea protein are minimal, so some may consider it complete while others don’t.”
In order to consume enough complementary proteins to meet your body’s needs, it’s recommended that you consume adequate calories from a variety of protein sources throughout the day.
Another benefit of the plant-based protein is that it helps support a healthy heart.
Legumes, the family in which green peas are from, are rich in fiber, protein, and micronutrients but contain very little fat and sugar. Because of this, they reduce the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure and help manage diabetes. Plant-based proteins have also been shown to reduce inflammation, which over time can decrease the risk of coronary heart disease.
If you’re still hesitant to try pea protein, research shows that swapping it out in place of animal protein could help you live longer. In the early 2000s, scientists discovered that inhabitants of five “longevity hotspots” in the world were up to 10 times more likely to live to the age of 100 than people in other regions. They call these hotspots “Blue Zones”. Researchers found nine common denominators among these regions that contributed to the longevity of the inhabitants, one of which is shifting your meals to include more vegetables and less meat. Researchers found that the diet of those who lived to reach the centennial mark mostly consisted of beans, including peas, and they only ate meat about five times a month.
What Are the Shortfalls?
All that being said, pea protein does have some potential shortfalls. Pea protein contains purines, which can affect people who suffer from gout, since purine breaks down into uric acid that forms crystals in the joints and can cause inflammation and pain.
Even though protein can help aid in weight loss, it’s important to note that consuming more protein than your body needs can have an adverse effect. Jacks adds that any time more calories are consumed than can be burned, weight gain will occur, no matter what type of food eaten.
In order to consume the appropriate amount of protein for your body’s needs, a good general rule of thumb is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 to calculate the necessary amount of protein in grams.
Lastly, the more money you spend, the better-quality product you’re going to get. Lower-cost protein powders can have cheap additives and chemicals. Doing your research on quality pea protein powders can help you figure out which one will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
How Can I Use It?
The simplest way to add pea protein to your diet, and also the easiest way to get your recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables, is to add it to a smoothie, but it’s not your only option. It can be substituted in place of any other protein powder in a recipe, and even be included in baked goods to pack a protein punch.
“I would suggest adding it into recipes as additional protein such as fruit smoothies, yogurt bowls, oatmeal, protein balls or getting creative and adding it to favorite baked foods to improve the nutrient value by increasing lean protein and fiber content,” Jacks adds.
Protein Pow’s Flu Fighter Protein Cookies
Makes 10 cookies
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1/4 cup gluten-free flour
1/4 cup pea protein powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon & ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
½ cup almond butter
1/2 cup erythritol or other sugar substitute
2 large eggs
1/4 cup honey
1 small banana
2 teaspoons orange zest
1/2 cup oats
1 cup goji berries
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts, toasted
2 tbsp sprinkles (optional)
1. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and press the batter around with a fork/spoon until you get a batter that mimics the texture of natural peanut butter.
2. Divide the batter into 10 large cookies. Press them down with a fork or spatula so they flatten a bit.
3. Bake on a cookie tray sprayed with cooking spray for ten minutes at 375F (190C).
4. Leave on a cooling rack until cool.
What’s the Final Verdict?
Protein powders can add an extra protein punch that you may be lacking from your diet alone, and with pea protein powder’s multiple health benefits, it can an easy alternative to animal sources. But it’s important to keep in mind that pea protein should not be a total substitute for a healthy, varied diet.
“While I do encourage people who are interested in trying plant proteins to consider pea protein, is important to know that the FDA does not regulate supplements, including protein powders, so you should look for a product that has been 3rd party tested (NSF/Informed Choice), review the ingredient label and consult a health professional,” Jacks says. “It’s also important to understand that plant-based sources are more commonly ‘incomplete proteins’ which is fine when eating a variety of food, but including plant-based proteins while maintaining a healthy balance with animal proteins is ideal. Adding plant-based proteins can be an easy way to help improve the variety of your diet and increase your vegetable intake.”