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Pea Protein: An Alternative Protein Source for Vegetarians

Plant-based protein sources for vegetarians typically include soy, legumes, beans, grains, and nuts. From meat substitutes to dairy alternatives, products made with plant-based protein have increased in the past decade and are expected to take a third of the protein market by 2054. Pea protein is not new to the plant-based protein market, but is getting more focus as a plant-protein source. New products containing pea protein are now available in the dairy, condiment, and meat sections of major grocery stores. This increases the choices for those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets and for those with dairy or soy allergies.

What is pea protein?

Pea protein is removed from yellow split peas. Pea seeds are rich in protein, carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The amino acid content of pea protein is close to soy (a complete protein containing all essential amino acids). Pea protein is low in one important amino acid: methionine. Methionine is important in new blood vessel growth and is needed to make other amino acids. Combining different protein sources at the same meal isn’t necessary to make a complete protein. Eating protein from a variety of plant foods over the course of a day will provide enough essential amino acids (as long as caloric needs are met).

Environmental Benefits

Pea crops are grown throughout the world and require minimal resources. It takes less than two acres to get one ton of pea protein compared to fifteen acres to get one ton of beef protein. Other environmental benefits include zero greenhouse gas emissions, less water use than almond or dairy milk production, and increased nitrogen fixation in the soil reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers.

What does it taste like?

Like other plant-based proteins, small flavor molecules add a beany or grassy taste. The process used in manufacturing pea protein removes off-flavor molecules from the protein without adding flavors or sugar to mask them. What’s left is a neutral taste that can take on new flavors.

New Choices in the Grocery Aisles

New milk alternatives made with pea protein are available in the dairy section. These products contain eight grams of protein per eight ounce serving. This is the same as soy milk and eight times the amount of almond milk. Other products in the dairy section include half and half and a Greek yogurt alternative. The Greek yogurt alternative contains six grams of pea protein per one cup serving. Sandwich lovers will find an eggless mayonnaise using pea protein in the condiment aisle. For those looking for a meat alternative, a 100% vegan burger with no soy or gluten can be found in the meat section. It packs 20 grams of soy protein per serving and looks, cooks, and tastes like fresh beef burger. Chicken and ground beef alternatives are also available.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the regular intake of legumes and soy products will provide enough protein and essential nutrients for vegetarians. Plant-based proteins are not digested as well as animal protein so protein needs may be somewhat higher. It’s important to remember peas are in the legume family. Pea protein may pose a possible risk to people who have allergies to other legumes like peanuts and soybeans. If you have a legume allergy, be cautious when introducing pea protein into your diet.

References & Resources

Alternative Proteins to Claim a Third of the Market by 2054. Lux Research website. http://www.luxresearchinc.com/news-and-events/press-releases/read/alternative-proteins-claim-third-market-2054. Last accessed February 8, 2018.

Bernhisel-Bradbent J, Taylor S, Sampson H. Cross-allergenicity in the legume botanical family in children with food hypersensitivity. II. Laboratory correlates. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1989;84:701-9.

Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: vegetarian diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980.

Palmer, S. Plant Proteins. Today’s Dietitian, 2017;19(2)26.

Pea Protein Is Coming Up Strong. Nutritional Outlook website. http://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/protein/pea-protein-coming-strong. Last accessed February 8, 2018.

Ruscigno, M. Pea Protein, Today’s Dietitian. 2017;18(12)32.