The rise of pea protein: Tiny legume packs big nutrition punch

To make it, dried yellow split peas are ground into flour that’s processed so the protein can be separated from the starches.

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Pea protein has made its way inside a variety of products.

Pea protein has made its way inside a variety of food products.

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As the popularity of plant-based eating blooms, protein sources from the plant kingdom have flooded the market, but there’s one source of protein that’s grabbed the lion’s share of popularity: pea protein.

It has made its way inside a panoply of products, including protein powders, dairy-free versions of milk, ice cream and yogurt, chips, energy bars, and veggie burgers as companies look to meet consumer demand for plant protein.

What is pea protein?

To make pea protein, dried yellow split peas are ground into flour after which it is processed so the protein can be separated from the starches. Isolates go through an additional filtration step, creating a product with roughly 90% of protein by weight, meaning fewer carbs.

Companies have now worked out ways to give pea protein a neutral flavor profile and less grittiness, making it an attractive, and relatively inexpensive, addition to a range of packaged foods.

Pros, cons of pea protein

Many people are looking to increase protein intake to better maintain and build lean body mass, a key to healthier, more functional aging. Research shows pea protein can be as effective at increasing lean body mass as animal-based sources such as whey, especially when paired with weight training.

Tests show pea protein has a high essential amino acid content as a percentage of its total protein. Essential amino acids are the ones you must get from your diet daily and are important building blocks of muscle protein and connective tissues.

One concern is that pea protein is not a complete protein, as it is low in the amino acids methionine and cysteine. But assuming you eat a varied diet with other foods that provide these amino acids, such as whole grains, it isn’t necessary to consume complete proteins at each meal. So pea protein’s amino acid shortcoming shouldn’t be a concern.

Some scientific investigations suggest that consuming pea protein can bolster satiety. For people with tendencies for overeating and poor portion control, including this protein in meals and snacks could help better manage calorie intake.

This jibes with evidence that protein is a more satiating macronutrient than carbs and fat. But eating whole peas could end up being more filling than isolated pea protein because it contains more fiber.

Pea protein has a very low risk of allergy or sensitivity issues. If you suffer from gout, though, pea protein contains purines, which can increase inflammation and pain.

Pea protein does not provide the levels of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that you would get from whole peas and should not be considered nutritionally equivalent.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts.

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