It’s best to get your protein from whole foods sources, but when you’re in a rush and need to get protein quickly, a scoop of protein powder in a smoothie or hot cereal does the job. Although whey and soy protein dominate the market, the competition is heating up with pea protein rapidly gaining momentum. What’s driving the growth of pea protein and does it offer benefits over other sources of plant-based protein?
What is Pea Plant-Based Protein?
As you might expect, pea protein comes from the pea, a type of legume. Made by drying pea flour and then re-hydrating it, pea protein is a cost-effective alternative to other forms of plant-based protein such as rice, soy, and potato protein. This makes it a popular choice for vegetarians and vegans who consume no animal-based products.
Another benefit of pea protein is its low level of allergenicity. It’s not uncommon for people to be allergic or intolerant to soy or dairy-derived protein, but pea protein is well tolerated by most people. With growing interest in non-genetically modified foods, pea protein, being non-GMO, fits the bill. Pea protein is also an acceptable form of protein for people with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity since it contains no gluten. Pea protein is also free of lactose for the growing number of adults who are lactose intolerant.
Pea protein also wins points for having a low environmental impact. Growing peas requires only a small plot of land and minimal resources. Farming peas also requires less water compared to a similar amount of soybeans for soy protein. Consumers looking for a form of protein that has less impact on the environment can feel good about pea protein.
Pea Protein for Building Lean Body Mass
Protein supplements are often compared to whey protein since it’s the form of protein most commonly embraced by bodybuilders, although it’s not suitable for vegans since it’s derived from dairy. Pea protein is an alternative rich in branched-chain amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine and valine, amino acids. Branched-chain amino acids turn on protein synthesis and block the breakdown of muscle tissue during intense exercise. They may also aid in muscle recovery. In comparison to whey, pea protein contains slightly lower levels of most of the essential amino acids and has an amino acid profile similar to soy. It does have more of one amino acid, phenylalanine relative to whey and is one of the best sources of the amino acid arginine.
Overall, pea protein has a balanced amino acid profile. Another advantage is its easy digestibility. Because it contains no lactose or gluten, which can cause bloating, gas and fullness in some people, pea protein is easier on the digestive tract. Pea protein isn’t as rapidly absorbed as whey, which can be an advantage because the slower release of amino acids helps maintain a steady blood level of muscle-building protein.
One study compared whey protein and pea protein head to head in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Healthy, young men took 25-gram servings of either whey, pea protein or a placebo twice daily for 12 weeks, in combination with resistance training. All three groups experienced increases in muscle thickness, as confirmed by ultrasound, but the group who took pea protein showed greater gains in muscle thickness compared to the placebo group, with no statistical difference between pea protein and whey in terms of muscle gains. Researchers concluded that pea protein is an acceptable alternative to whey protein for people trying to build lean body mass.
Taste is a Drawback for Some People
Despite the popularity of pea protein, it has a “bean-like” flavor that doesn’t appeal to everyone, and the flavor is sufficiently strong that it’s difficult to cover with other flavorings. On the upside, it mixes well with hot cereal and gives it a somewhat creamy texture. When you blend pea protein into a smoothie, it imparts the smoothie with a slightly grainy texture, which you can offset, to some degree, by adding more liquid. You can also mask the flavor and texture by adding flakes of coconut, nuts or berries.
One question is whether you really need a protein supplement. It’s best to get your protein from whole foods sources whenever possible, but pea protein is an alternative if you need a quick, easy-to-consume source protein source when you’re on the go, especially if you eat a vegan diet or can’t tolerate whey or casein.
It’s becoming popular to mix pea protein with rice protein. Rice protein is low in lysine while pea protein contains this amino acid in abundance. Rice protein and pea protein both bring higher levels of some amino acids to the table and create an even stronger amino acid profile. Plus, the addition of rice protein makes for a supplement that tastes better and is less grainy.
If you decide you need a protein supplement, purchase it from a reputable manufacturer, even then you can’t always be sure the supplement you’re buying is safe. Consumer Labs tested a number of protein powders and supplements and found some contained high levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium. These are heavy metals you want to avoid due to the impact they can have on your organs. For example, lead is toxic to the brain while cadmium can cause kidney damage. Cadmium in protein supplements is especially concerning since it’s stored in your body and very difficult to eliminate. Don’t forget that protein powders are also highly processed.
The Bottom Line
It’s likely you can get enough dietary protein by eating whole foods sources such as eggs, lean poultry, and fish, but if you need the convenience of a protein powder with a balanced amino acid profile, pea protein is an option. Don’t depend on any type of protein supplement to be your “go to” source of protein – there are too many benefits to getting protein from whole foods sources that offer other nutrients as well.
Nutritional Outlook. May 2015. “Pea Power”
Nutraingredients-USA,com. “Pea Protein Supplements Match Whey for Muscle Protein Thickness Gains: Roquette Study.” January 26, 2015.
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Jan 21;12(1):3. doi: 10.1186/s12970-014-0064-5. eCollection 2015.
Consumer Reports. “Protein Drinks”
ConsumerLab.com “31% of Protein Powders and Drinks Fail Tests by ConsumerLab.com”
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