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What's the Deal with Pea Protein and Should You Give It a Try?

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Photo: kostrez / Shutterstock

As plant-based eating becomes more and more popular, alternative protein sources have been flooding the food market. From quinoa and hemp to sacha inchi and chlorella, there are almost too many to count. You may have seen pea protein amongst these popular plant-based protein alternatives, but still be a bit confused about how on Earth peas could ever be an adequate source of protein.

Here, experts give the scoop on this nutrient-dense little powerhouse. Read on for all the pros and cons of pea protein and why it's worth your attention—even if you're not vegan or plant-based.

Why Pea Protein Is Popping

"Thanks to its shelf-stable, easy-to-add appeal, pea protein is easily becoming a trendy, economical, sustainable, and nutrient-rich protein source," says registered dietitian Sharon Palmer. Sure enough, it's making its way inside protein powders, shakes, supplements, plant-based milk, and veggie burgers.

For example, mainstream brands like Bolthouse Farms are hopping on the pea protein bandwagon. Tracy Rossettini, director of research and development for Bolthouse Farms, says the brand chose to incorporate pea protein in the brand's new yellow pea–derived Plant Protein Milk because it delivers on consumer desire for taste, calcium, and protein—minus the dairy. She says it has 10 grams of protein per serving (compared to 1g of protein in almond milk), 50 percent more calcium than dairy milk, and is fortified with vitamin B12 (which can be hard to get enough of if you're on a vegan or plant-based diet).

Ripple Foods, a dairy-free milk company, makes products exclusively with pea milk. Adam Lowry, co-founder of Ripple, explains that his company was drawn to peas because they're actually more sustainable than almonds, as they use less water and produce fewer CO2 emissions. The company includes pea protein in their pea milk and non-dairy Greek-style yogurt, which feature up to 8 and 12 grams of pea protein per serving, respectively.

And this is just the beginning: A recent market report conducted by Grand View Research suggests that the global pea protein market size in 2016 was $73.4 million—a number that's projected to rise exponentially by 2025.

Rossettini agrees and says that pea protein is just part of the booming growth of the non-dairy market as a whole: "According to recent data from Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), the non-dairy milk segment is expected to grow to $4 Billion by 2020," she says. (Not totally surprising, considering there are tons of delicious non-dairy milk options available now.)

The Benefits of Pea Protein

Why is pea protein worth your attention? The Journal of Renal Nutrition reports that pea protein offers some legit health benefits. For one, it's not derived from any of the eight most common allergenic foods (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish, shellfish, and wheat), which are often used to create protein supplements—meaning it's a safe option for people with various dietary restrictions. Preliminary studies also show that pea protein intake can actually reduce blood pressure in hypertensive rats and humans, according to the report. One potential reason: Because pea protein is often derived mechanically from ground yellow split peas (versus chemical separation, often used for soy and whey proteins), it retains more soluble fiber, which ultimately has a positive effect on cardiovascular health. (Here's more about the different types of fiber and why it's so good for you.)

Even though whey has long been held as the king of all protein supplements, pea protein is rich in essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids, making it a great supplement for muscle building and maintenance, says physician and nutrition expert Nancy Rahnama, M.D. Science backs it up: A study conducted by The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition also found that in a group of people consuming protein supplements in combination with resistance training, pea protein elicited just as much muscle thickness gains as whey. (See: Could Vegan Protein Be Just As Effective As Whey for Building Muscle?)

In fact, when it comes to digestion, pea protein may even have a leg up on whey: "Pea protein may be better tolerated than whey protein, as it does not have any dairy in it," Dr. Rahnama. If you're one of many people who experience bloating (or stinky protein farts) after downing some whey protein, pea might be a better option for you, she says.

"Another benefit of pea protein is that plant-based diets have been linked to a number of health benefits," says registered dietitian Lauren Manaker. This means lower cholesterol, lower hemoglobin A1c levels (a measure of your average blood sugar level), and better blood glucose control, she explains. Indeed, pea protein may help reduce blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels, according to a study conducted by the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center.

Some Downsides Worth Considering

"The obvious downside of pea protein is that it does not have a complete profile of 100 percent of the amino acids you need," says oncology-certified dietitian Chelsey Schneider. FYI, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. While your body can make some of them, you need to consume others through food, she says. Those are called essential amino acids. (There are nine: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.) Animal-based proteins (meat, fish, or dairy) typically contain all these essential amino acids and are therefore called complete proteins, she explains.

Some plant foods (like quinoa) contain all essential amino acids, but most (like pea protein) do not, and thus are not complete proteins, says Schneider. An easy fix? Combine different plant-based protein sources that have complementary amino acids to ensure you get all the ones you need. For example, Schneider recommends adding in extras like chia, flax, or hemp seeds. (Here's a guide to vegan protein sources.)

If you're on a low-carb diet (like the keto diet), heads up: "Peas are an okay source of protein, but it's also a bit high in carbs for a vegetable," says registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto. One cup of peas has about 8 grams of protein and 21 grams of carbs, she says. This is a drastic difference compared to broccoli, which only has 10 grams of carbs and 2.4 grams of protein per cup.

How to Pick the Right Pea Protein Powder

To make sure you're buying a quality pea protein, get one that's organic, says registered nutritionist Tara Allen. That ensures it'll be non-GMO and will contain fewer pesticides.

She also recommends checking your nutrition labels carefully, as you'll want to choose a brand with the least number of ingredients. Keep an eye out for and avoid excess fillers (like carrageenan), added sugar, dextrin or maltodextrin, thickeners (like xanthan gum), and any artificial colorings, she says.

"When looking for a high-quality pea protein powder, it's also wise to avoid artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium," says registered dietitian Britni Thomas. Stevia, on the other hand, is a safe sweetener unless you are sensitive to it, she says.

Although peas aren't a complete protein on their own, many brands will add the missing amino acids or blend pea protein with other plant-based proteins to create a complete protein supplement: Check the right-hand side of the nutrition label on the bottle and make sure that all nine essential amino acids are listed, says Dr. Rahnama.

Regardless of what kind of protein you're using, remember: It's still important to consume protein as part of balanced meals throughout the day. "It's always best to get as much of your nutrition as possible from whole foods and just utilize supplements to fill in the gaps," says Allen. "There are many ways you can incorporate pea protein into your day." Try mixing it into smoothies, healthy muffins, oatmeal, and even pancakes.

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