Your Complete Pea Protein Guide: Health Benefits, Uses, & How To Find A Good One
Getting the recommended amount of protein in your diet can be tricky in and of itself. Add in any other variables, like a vegan diet or sensitivities, and getting an optimal amount of protein becomes even more complex. Enter pea protein, which is easy on the stomach and has benefits for overall health.
What is pea protein?
Pea protein is exactly what it sounds like, protein derived from yellow peas.
Of course, you can eat peas to get pea protein, but you can also buy powered versions to use as a protein supplement if you’re having trouble getting enough protein from meals.
Pea protein is one of the most rigorously studied plant proteins1. That might be because peas are an abundant crop1 globally, and pea protein can be produced at a low cost1. Plus, when it comes to plants, peas have a high protein content along with an excellent nutrition profile1.
Pea protein powder also blends well without creating a chalky texture and has a mild taste that won’t overpower other flavors in your smoothie or shake.
Pea protein can be found in different forms: isolate, concentrate, and blends. Pea protein isolate contains mostly pea protein and amino acids for a product that is about 80% protein2. Pea protein concentrate has less protein than isolate and contains other macronutrients, such as carbohydrates and fats. A blended pea protein option includes other types of protein, with rice protein being one of the most common pairings.
Pea protein contains all nine2 of the essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. We need 20 different amino acids for our bodies to function. Nine of these amino acids3 are considered essential, meaning we must get them from diet since our bodies can’t make them. Although pea protein contains all the essential amino acids, it is lower in some aminos, like methionine2, when compared to animal proteins like whey protein.
For this reason, explains Jesse Feder, RDN, a dietitian, personal trainer, and contributor to My Crohn’s and Colitis Team, some people don't consider pea protein a complete protein source—i.e. one that contains all the essential amino acids in the right amounts.
That's not to say you can get the essential amino acids in the amount that you need from plant-based protein sources, says Susan Hewlings, Ph.D., a registered dietician and vice president of research affairs at Radicle Science. “It's just that you normally have to consume a greater amount to get the same increase in protein synthesis from the plant proteins as you do from whey, if we’re comparing,” she says.
As a leading protein and amino acid researcher Don Layman, Ph.D. explained on the mindbodygreen podcast, you can fulfill your protein needs on a plant-based diet, "But you have to realize you will always need more total protein, and that means more total calories, to be equal."
Pea protein benefits
The benefits of pea protein are plenty, from helping to build and maintain muscle to boosting overall health via its anti-inflammatory properties. Here are five plusses of pea protein.
It may positively impact body composition.
“Pea protein is an excellent plant-based protein that can help improve body composition by supporting the growth and maintenance of muscle mass,” says Rachel MacPherson, a certified sports nutritionist.
When used in conjunction with resistance training, pea protein can help you build muscle. In emerging research, pea protein promoted a greater increase in muscle thickness compared to a placebo4 when ingested twice a day over the course of a 12-week upper-body resistance training program. No significant differences were observed in muscle gains between the protein and whey groups.
Another study investigated protein supplementation with high-intensity functional training, also called HIFT. The researchers also found that pea protein and whey protein produced similar results5 in body composition, muscle thickness, and athletic performance measurements.
It may have anti-inflammatory properties.
One of the main types of protein we get from yellow peas is albumin6. Albumin, the most abundant circulating protein in the blood, has anti-inflammatory7 effects and helps protect against cardiovascular disease. Low albumin levels8 are associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers.
Pea protein also contains bioactive peptides that have antioxidant effects9, among other benefits. One study showed that pea protein lowered pro-inflammatory markers10 in study participants.
Although more research is needed, animal studies demonstrate that pea protein may have potential to help alleviate symptoms of inflammatory conditions, such as atopic dermatitis11.
Pea protein may also support gastrointestinal health by improving the gut microbiome1. An impaired or disturbed gut microbiome12 is associated with several metabolic diseases that are also inflammatory, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more.
It helps reduce age-related muscle loss.
Protein supplementation13, specifically with protein that contains all essential amino acids14, like pea, can help reduce one’s risk for extreme age-related muscle mass decline, known as sarcopenia, in conjunction with resistance training.
Hewlings adds that there is also evidence that protein can help support lean body mass15 during the menopause transition.
It has a higher leucine content than most plant proteins.
The essential amino acid leucine is a crucial for protein synthesis. Plant-based proteins tend to have lower amounts of leucine13 when compared to animal-based versions. However, when it comes to plant-based options, both pea and brown rice protein have a higher leucine content2 than others, with the exception of corn and potato proteins.
To boost your intake of leucine, Hewlings recommends blending pea protein with rice protein, or you can buy a pre-mixed option.
Sustainability compared to other sources of protein
Peas have sustainability perks, too. They work well as a rotational crop1 to help break disease cycles and they're also a good summer fallow crop1. Animal-derived proteins are largely considered less sustainable than plant options, since they are responsible for twice as many greenhouse gases16 on average.
How it compares to whey protein
Pea and whey protein often go head-to-head when it comes to comparisons. Here are four ways pea protein differs from whey.
Whey protein has more leucine content.
Leucine content is crucial for protein synthesis. The amount of leucine in 25 grams of whey protein is 2.7 grams2, which is the amount needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in humans17. By comparison, you would need to consume 38 grams of pea protein2 to get that same amount of leucine. “If we’re looking at it from [a protein synthesis perspective],” Hewlings says, “then whey has the advantage.” But again, she notes you can simply consume more pea protein to get the same benefit.
Whey protein has more methionine content.
Whey may irritate the GI tract in some people.
Whey is a byproduct of cheese production. “If you are lactose intolerant18 or sensitive to milk-based products,” Feder says, “pea protein may be easier on your stomach, since whey typically contains lactose.” Another gut health factor: Whey does not appear to alter gut microbiota19. In contrast, pea protein has beneficial effects on the gut microbiome1.
Pea protein is more sustainable to produce than whey.
If you stick to a plant-based diet to benefit the planet, then pea protein is a good choice for protein supplementation.
“It’s certainly an excellent option for anyone who is vegan or vegetarian,” Hewlings says. Peas are an abundant, sustainable crop1, while whey production contributes substantially to greenhouse gasses because of the toll that raising animals takes on the environment.
Who should take pea protein?
Most sports nutrition experts agree that the recommended daily allowance for protein (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight20) is going to be low for most active people, especially considering that protein deficiency21 is on the rise.
“The RDA is meant to provide a minimum for basic survival and functioning,” Macpherson adds. “The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the Dietitians of Canada all say that protein levels should be closer to between 1.2 grams and 2.0 grams 22of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.” This equates to at least 100 grams of protein per day for most people.
It's totally possible (and preferred) to meet this protein threshold by eating plenty of protein-rich whole foods.
But getting an optimal amount of protein at each meal, something Hewlings recommends, can be tricky. “If you tend to not eat a lot of protein at breakfast,” she says as an example, “maybe consider supplementing that protein intake at breakfast.” Try adding it to a banana-coffee smoothie or chocolate mint-chip shake.
Protein powders can also be a helpful way to take your protein on the go, add more protein to whole foods like yogurt or oatmeal, or get a quick hit of protein after exercising. Pea protein powder may be especially helpful for vegans or vegetarians who struggle to meet their protein needs through protein-rich plants alone.
How to find a good pea protein
All the experts interviewed for this article suggest looking for a pea protein powder that has been third-party tested for contaminants. Plus, check the label to ensure you’re not buying a product that has a bunch of fillers or unwanted ingredients, Macpherson says.
“Look for products that are made from non-GMO peas, free from artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners,” suggests registered dietitian Pallini Winnifred, RD.
Brand transparency is also key. “I would stay away from proprietary blends,” Feder says, “as this makes it so you will not be able to find out how much of each ingredient is in the product.”
Ideally, your pea protein powder will also have its amino acid content clearly listed, and contain at least 2.5 grams23 of the essential amino acid leucine.
RELATED READ: What To Look For In A Complete Vegan Protein Powder + 8 Top Options
mbg's picks for clean pea protein powders
Timing and best practices
Hewlings recommends consuming protein throughout the day, aiming to work between 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. Supplementing with protein powder at meals where you tend to fall short can help. (Here are a few tips on how to work more protein into every meal and snack.)
To build and maintain muscle mass, it’s also important to incorporate resistance training into your workout routine. Feder also recommends ensuring you get enough protein in the hours after you exercise. “The window for increased protein synthesis is about four to eight hours24 after the workout,” he explains, so you don't need to worry about forcing down a protein shake as soon as you leave the gym.
If you’re trying to lose weight, he adds, “having a pea protein shake as a meal replacement or in between meals can help keep you satiated and prevent overeating.”
Side effects and risk of too much protein
“There are a lot of myths out there—and you’ll still see it in a lot of old textbooks—that you shouldn’t over-consume protein because it leads to liver and kidney disease,” Hewlings says. “There’s absolutely nothing to support that.”
However, she notes that too much protein can become an issue if you’re consuming it at the expense of other nutrients. “If you’re consuming protein and therefore not eating enough fiber, not eating enough, fruit, vegetables, grains—that sort of stuff—that decreases the consumption of other healthy nutrients.”
Likewise, over-consuming calories in general, regardless of their nutrient profile, can lead to weight gain.
Feder recommends consulting with your doctor on how much protein you should be eating if you have any underlying medical conditions, especially kidney or liver issues.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it OK to have pea protein every day?
Yes, you can have pea protein every day to supplement your protein intake as needed.
Is pea protein anti-inflammatory?
Yes, the albumin and the bioactive peptides in pea protein may help alleviate inflammation, according to research.
How do I find a good pea protein powder?
Look for a brand that lists all its ingredients and is third-party tested for contaminates. Ideally, your pea protein powder will also contain at least 2.5 grams of the essential amino acid leucine to support muscle growth.
Pea protein is a great way to supplement your protein intake if you’re falling short with your meals throughout the day. However, it’s low on certain essential amino acids when compared to an animal-derived protein, such as whey. But you can still get enough of those essential amino acids by consuming more pea protein or blending it with other sources of protein. Plus, thanks to its production from yellow peas, pea protein has lots of nutritional benefits that go beyond just upping your protein intake.
Looking for a high-quality pea protein powder to work into your routine? Take a look at mbg's top picks of the year.
Jennifer Chesak is the author of The Psilocybin Handbook for Women: How Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelic Therapy, and Microdosing Can Benefit Your Mental, Physical, and Spiritual Health. She is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, editor, fact-checker, and adjunct professor with two decades of experience and a Master of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University's Medill. Her byline appears in several national publications, including the Washington Post. Follow her on socials @jenchesak.