I have to admit, when I first heard the buzz about pea protein my initial reaction was, “Really?” I mean, when you think of muscle builders, peas are probably one of the last foods that come to mind, but indeed, protein powders made from peas are popping up everywhere.
The main reason they’re gaining traction is because pea protein is rich in branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), protein compounds that have been shown to delay fatigue during exercise. That's exciting, because the amount of BCAAs in pea protein comes close to those found in milk and eggs, but is less likely to cause allergic reactions or intolerances. Pea protein also contains arginine, an amino acid shown to enhance immunity, fight erectile dysfunction and improve fertility. The lysine content in peas helps the body absorb calcium and decreases the amount of calcium lost in urine, thus helping to maintain strong bones. And peas are a plant, so it’s a protein source that’s lower on the food chain (thus more “green”), and in line with the general shift towards a plant-based diet.
When protein is isolated from a food, it’s more compact. One quarter of a cup of dry yellow split-peas contains about 10 grams of protein, along with 28 grams of carbohydrate. But one scoop of Now Foods’ unflavored non-GMO pure pea protein powder packs 28 grams of protein, slightly more than a 3-ounce chicken breast, with just 1 gram of carbs.
So, should you try it? In my opinion, the answer depends on your protein needs. Simply adding a pea protein smoothie to your diet if you’re already getting enough protein isn’t a good idea (check out my recent post about how much protein is too much). But if you’re missing out, looking for more vegan high-protein options, or you typically eat a protein bar and want to swap it out for a shake, so you can control the ingredients and amounts, it’s worth a try. For a delicious, balanced combo whip it up with almond milk, almond butter, frozen pitted cherries, rolled oats, ground cinnamon or cloves, and if you need a little kick add a pinch of green tea leaves or ground coffee beans.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.