Protein is a crucial part of any diet. Whether you are looking to make major muscle gains, lose weight, or maintain health, protein provides the building blocks your body needs to function properly. When you think of protein, you might not immediately think of peas, but peas are the protein source behind popular plant-based alternatives like Ripple Milk and the Beyond Burger. Small but mighty, peas pack a protein punch.
What is pea protein?
Pea protein, for use as a supplement or in food manufacturing, is a plant-based protein derived from yellow split peas. Rather than the chemical processing used to isolate many other types of protein, peas are mechanically processed1. First they are dried and ground. Then they are soaked in a saline solution to remove the starch and fiber. The resulting protein-rich compound is ground and processed to the desired consistency and packaged for sale.
Pea protein can be found in a variety of products, from protein powders to veggie burgers to milk. Depending on how it is processed, pea protein can be produced in one of three forms2: isolates, which have the highest protein concentration; concentrates, which have a slightly lower protein concentration and may contain some fat and carbohydrates; and textured, which can be used in meat substitutes. When sold as a protein powder, in the isolate form, pea protein typically has around 25 grams of protein per 100-calorie serving.
Pea protein benefits.
Pea protein is high in muscle-building branch chain amino acids3 (BCAA), but it is considered an "incomplete" protein because it is low in methionine and tryptophan4. "Complete" proteins (think meat, eggs, and dairy) are typically favored because they provide all nine essential amino acids in relatively the same amounts that we require. "Incomplete" protein sources are low in one or more of these amino acids. The body needs all nine essential amino acids to build muscle, grow, and function properly. Luckily, "incomplete" proteins can complement one another to provide all of the necessary amino acids. Research has shown5 that if you are eating a variety of protein sources throughout the day, it should all even out in the end. So as long as pea protein is not your only source of protein, and since protein is naturally in so many foods, you will be fine. Although pea protein isn't a "complete" protein, it's high BCAA content makes it a great post-workout choice for muscle recovery and rebuilding.
Additionally, pea protein is naturally free of dairy, nuts, and gluten, perfect for those with allergies or dietary restrictions. It also tends to be easier on the digestive system than dairy-based proteins.
Another great reason to choose pea protein: Plant-based proteins are more sustainable6 than animal-derived ones. They use less water and energy resources to produce, and they fortify the soil. Peas, in particular, require less water to grow than other commonly used plant proteins like soy and nuts.
Pea protein vs. whey protein.
So, how does pea protein stack up to the gym-goers go-to, whey? Whey protein2 is derived from cow's milk that has been chemically processed to isolate and extract the protein content. Because it is a dairy-based product, whey is a "complete" protein, providing all nine essential amino acids in the necessary amounts. Due to its high protein content and full amino acid profile, whey is a popular choice among active individuals or those looking to lose weight with a high-protein diet. Whey protein powder typically provides around 20 grams of protein per 100-calorie serving.
Pea protein can provide similar benefits to whey protein without the dairy allergens and sustainability issues. Although pea protein is not a "complete" protein, one study7 found that pea protein promoted muscle growth as effectively as whey when both protein powders were paired with a resistance training plan. In fact, as we mentioned, the high levels of BCAAs and naturally occurring sodium in pea protein make it a great post-workout recovery fuel alternative to whey.
Also, if weight loss is your goal, you may want to try pea protein. In a study8 comparing protein sources, those who consumed pea protein before a meal subsequently ate significantly fewer calories than those who had consumed whey protein. This may be because pea protein is digested more slowly than whey, which makes it more satiating (though it's important to remember that calories are only one part of the weight loss equation).
For those who suffer from allergies, avoid dairy, or just want to shake up their protein game, pea protein is a great option.
How to pick a pea protein.
When it comes to selecting the right protein powder to add to your diet, there are a couple of important factors to look out for to ensure the product you pick aligns with your goals. First, check the sugar content. Whether it's whey, pea, or another source, many protein powders contain added sugars and artificial sweeteners, or other additives and preservatives. If the flavor seems too good to be true (looking at you, ice-cream-sundae-flavored protein powder), it likely has added sugars. Also, watch out for hidden sugars, like dextrose and xylitol, in the ingredient list, to be sure your "healthy" shake isn't just a milkshake in disguise.
When it comes to plant-based proteins, you also have to be mindful of soil quality. Plants can soak up heavy metals, like lead and arsenic, in the soil, and peas are no exception. Look for trustworthy companies with third-party testing to ensure you are getting a clean pea protein. Looking for a great recommendation? We recommend So Lean & So Clean, Ora Organics, $50 and Organic Plant Protein, Garden of Life, $25 (the smooth vanilla flavor is a great addition to any morning smoothie).
If you're looking for a "complete" protein, try a blended product. Many brands sell pea protein mixed with a complementary protein source, like brown rice protein, so you can get all nine essential amino acids in the necessary quantities in one go. Not sure where to find one? Try this Organic Vegan Plant-Based Protein Powder, Kos, $44, which contains a combination of pea protein, flaxseed protein, and quinoa protein.
No matter your health goals, pea protein stacks up as a healthy and sustainable protein source.
Looking for a delicious way to use your protein powder? Check out our Guide to Making Healthy Smoothies.
Darcy McDonough, M.S., is the Senior Manager, SEO & Content Strategy at mindbodygreen. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She has previously worked in nutrition communications for Joy Bauer, the nutrition and health expert for NBC’s TODAY Show.
McDonough has developed & lead nutrition education programming in schools. She’s covered a wide range of topics as a health & nutrition reporter from the rise in the use of psychedelics for depression to the frustrating trend in shorter doctors' appointments and the connection between diet and disease.